The mass defections during the Lobo basketball offseason left holes all over the roster.
In the minds of many fans, though, the biggest void to fill for the UNM men’s basketball team was at point guard. That was the one spot on the roster without a returning player after freshman Jalen Harris and sophomore Jordan Hunter – they of a combined 30 starts last season – decided to transfer to Arkansas and Lamar, respectively.
That concern was never shared by the UNM coaching staff.
And less than a week into official practices for the 2017-18 season, the reason for the staff’s quiet offseason confidence is apparent. Veteran transfers Chris McNeal and Antino Jackson have not only elevated the point guard spot to arguably the strength of the team, but clearly have become the tone-setters in practice for what first-year head coach Paul Weir wants in his program.
“It’s the best duo I’ve coached since the 2010 team (at New Mexico State) that had (Hernst) LaRoche and Jonathan Gibson,” Weir said, referring to when he was associate head coach for an Aggies squad that won 23 games, the Western Athletic Conference tournament and was possibly a lane-violation away from an NCAA Tournament upset of eventual national semifinalist Michigan State.
“Jonathan Gibson was really a point guard we played off the ball. We had a lot of speed, a lot of quickness and a lot of shooting ability. That all made that team really good. I’m hoping that will make this team pretty good, too.”
Gibson played for the Dallas Mavericks last year, and LaRoche has made a living in pro leagues overseas since his NMSU days.
In McNeal and Jackson, the Lobos actually made a huge upgrade in Division I experience over last year. McNeal started 29 games at Western Kentucky in 2015-16 before becoming a junior college honorable mention All-American last season at Indian Hills Community College in Ottuma, Iowa.
Jackson was a three-year starter (80 starts in 106 games played) and scored 1,019 points at Akron before graduating over the summer and transferring to UNM for his final season.
And, aside from the experience the two have gained elsewhere, their intense competition against one another is exactly what Weir wants.
“I’m glad he’s on my team because he pushes me at practice and in games like (Thursday’s scrimmage) to get better,” McNeal said of Jackson. “We don’t let up, either. He’s trying to go out with a bang (as a senior). We both know the situation and we go at it. I mean, we really go at it in practice. Off the court, we know it’s cool and that everything on the court is just business.”
Jackson agrees, saying he’s never been in a situation quite like this one where two point guards are pushing each other so hard at every moment in practice.
“We’ve been going at it since the day I got on campus,” Jackson said. “It’s only been making him better and only been making me better. I think we’re going to be one of the best backcourts in the nation. I say that with a lot of pride, and it’s all about how coach Weir pushes his guards.”
It’s not just talk, either. If anything, it seems the way the two Lobo point guards battle in practice might not be something that can be sustained throughout the entirety of a full season.
“It’s serious. It can get physical,” Weir said. “This last practice, it got really intense. It’s incredibly competitive, which is what I want our practices to be. It’s a lot of emotion, a lot of fire. And that’s great for the rest of our team to see two guys basically fighting each other every day the way those two do.
“It makes our team take on that attitude as well, which is definitely what we want to be.”
But, can the two play on the court at the same time? So far in offseason and in less than a week of full team practices, they haven’t.
But that apparently will change.
“Yes. For sure,” Weir said when asked if they’ll be on the court at the same time during the season. “They’ll continue to grow and push each other and make each other better and eventually make our team a lot better in the process, but that will also be with them on the floor together.”
NOT SO FAST, MY FRIEND: Jackson, always the competitor, didn’t think too highly of a line in a Journal article last week that pointed out fellow Lobo newcomer Troy Simons is the fastest player on the roster, based on times the team recently recorded in sprints.
And he made sure to tell the reporter who wrote it that the stat should have come with a disclaimer.
“I saw Troy’s (article in the Journal) and I got mad about that,” Jackson said, with a smile, after Thursday’s scrimmage at Johnson Gym. “Yeah, he’s probably the fastest without the ball, but I’m the fastest in the country with the ball in my hand. That’s what matters.
“We play with a basketball, baby.”