On March 9, the Lobos men’s basketball team walked off the court in the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, Nev., heads hung low. The players’ spirits broken.
A roster with promise was, for the third consecutive season, a one-and-done loser in the Mountain West tournament.
But this time was different. Fans, maybe even some of the most die-hard variety, just lost interest.
And since that night in Sin City, an offseason of financial turmoil, media scrutiny and internal finger-pointing around the University of New Mexico athletics department has created a black cloud over a once proud program.
Saturday night, with a new coach, a mostly new roster, a revamped student section and a new energy entering its season opener against Northern New Mexico College in the Pit with its newly minted Dreamstyle Arena signage, Lobo basketball hopes the healing can begin.
“I think everyone is aware that, whether it’s Lobo athletics or the state, there’s been a lot of — it’s been a rough go for however many months,” said new Lobos head coach Paul Weir.
“I’m hopeful that the kickoff of basketball season can be a fun time to help bring people together. It’s unfortunately become, I think, OK to be polarizing, whether you like something or hate something or support something or don’t support something. I’m hopeful that maybe Lobo basketball can be welcoming to a lot of different people and can kick off what I hope, with a new athletic director and some changes, will be a really fun time for Lobo sports.”
That’s a rather lofty goal for a basketball coach, but not unusual for Weir considering the unconventional approach he’s brought to most of what he’s done with the program since being hired in April.
Be it hot yoga classes, two-mile runs or being assigned to write letters to past former players who wore their jersey number, the Lobos players seem to have spent as much time this offseason experimenting with non-basketball tasks as working on jumpers and watching game film.
Blue-collar hard work and passion that reflects the Albuquerque and New Mexico community, Weir insists, will be the building blocks of his team, even if that means fine-tuning the actual product on the court takes a back seat to building the culture.
“As much as we ever get into some of the detail stuff as far as what we want to do offensively and defensively, I really, as a basketball coach, want to get there,” Weir said. “But I never want to get there and overlook what I really want our team to be about, which is going to be a team that competes really hard and plays with a lot of effort and intensity and energy and enthusiasm and compassion for each other and just a very united, hard-working team. So, that’s always going to be a staple, hopefully, for our basketball teams.”
If the team buys into that, he hopes, the fans will, too.
Saturday night, as the Paul Weir era officially begins, we’ll see if he’s right.
STARTING FIVE? Who knows who the starting five will be? Weir might, but he doesn’t want you, or his players, to know just yet.
“My hope is it stays in flux the whole season,” Weir said, suggesting he never wants any of his players to feel comfortable with their spot in the rotation.
A STATEWIDE AFFAIR: No, the New Mexico State Aggies won’t be here, but in addition to the Northern New Mexico-UNM game tonight, three other college basketball teams from around the Land of Enchantment, and one from Colorado with several New Mexico kids on the roster, will be playing in the Pit this weekend.
Weir hopes to make this an annual affair, tipping off the season with a multi-team, New Mexico Classic-type event with teams from the state playing. This weekend, Eastern New Mexico, Western New Mexico, New Mexico Highlands and Fort Lewis College (Durango, Colo.) will play in a four-team, four-game event.
“I’m really thankful to the coaches and the programs who decided to give this opening weekend a chance,” Weir said. “I’m hopeful that, in the future, it’s something that is going to grow into something bigger that will involve more schools, but we needed a starting point and I’m really glad we’ve done it.”
Saturday: Northern NM at UNM: the Pit, 7 p.m., 610 AM, www.TheMW.com