Eighty seven down.
The roughly 1,200 concrete steps that make up the 14 full-length aisles of the Pit’s lower bowl were once used by University of New Mexico Lobos head coach Paul Weir as a punishment.
Then, in a decision sure to make local mixed martial arts guru Greg Jackson happy after telling the Lobos to embrace the “normalization of suffering” in a September talk with the team, Weir decided recently to make running of the Pit steps a regular post-practice ritual.
He is, after all, trotting out a track team as much as a basketball one in his new up-tempo style loosely inspired by the high-energy “run-and-stun” Cleveland State teams of the 1980s. So, establishing conditioning is as important at this point of the Lobos’ season journey as pick and rolls and free throws.
Oh, and it should be noted that post-practice ritual of running the Pit steps isn’t at the player’s own pace. What started in the offseason with a requirement to get the run done in under 7 minutes, 30 seconds was shaved last Tuesday to a 6-minute mandate.
“No way,” Sam Logwood says was the first thought in his head when he heard Weir tell the team about the 6-minute time limit at the end of that grueling practice last week.
“There was no way.”
Yet, the entire team pulled it off. Barely.
So, two days later, Weir broke the news to them after another intense practice they were running the steps again, and this time it had to be under 5:50 or they’d do it again.
“I think he’s just going to keep taking time off, so we just have to keep trying to get through it,” Logwood said.
The team that has insisted from Day 1 it plans to use a full-court press and run-and-gun non-stop all season, looked the part of a fit squad on Saturday night, hardly breaking sweat in a 101-possession, record-setting 147-76 win over the NAIA Northern New Mexico Eagles.
Tuesday night, in the Pit, they will try to do the same against a Division I foe in the visiting Omaha Mavericks.
The conditioning Weir has forced upon his team — sometimes with heavy player skepticism — has clearly created a team in tremendous physical condition. But is it conducive to good offensive basketball?
In four live-game style encounters with opposing teams — an exhibition against BYU, two closed scrimmages against Northern Arizona and Denver, and Saturday’s regular season opener against NNMC — the Lobos have shot poorly twice and shot well twice.
Saturday, it was a blistering 18-of-39 (46.2 percent) from 3-point range despite pretty much keeping the pedal to the medal most of the game.
“Hopefully the conditioning has really caught up and now we’re making shots when it counts, which is good,” Weir said on Saturday night.
The Lobos aren’t merely trying to run their way to being one of the best conditioned teams in the country, but the fittest.
The jury is still out on where the sweet spot is in Weir’s mad-scientist approach that is part mental, part physical for both teams.
He has hung a sign outside the visiting locker room warning of the dangers of “acute altitude sickness” players might experience in the Pit when trying to keep up with his squad.
“Oh yeah, you can see it,” Kevin Mackey, the architect of those Cleveland State teams of the ’80s and current Indiana Pacers scout, told the Journal in August of watching opposing teams wilt under the high-intensity pressure Weir is trying with the Lobos. “They break. Some break in the middle, some break late. You see it on the floor. … And it’s a great feeling when it happens.”
That was a similar sentiment shared Saturday night by Lobos junior guard Chris McNeal, who barely broke a sweat while going off for 25 points and 10 assists in just 23 minutes in his UNM debut.
“You can tell during the game when they’re breaking down,” McNeal said. “What we do in practice doesn’t compare to the game. Actually, practices are way harder than the game. Coach tells us to feed off them getting tired so when we see them getting tired, we just keep on pushing.”
SPECIAL VISITOR: Tajuan Agee, a 6-foot-8 forward from Chicago playing at Tyler (Texas) Junior College, is expected to make a recruiting visit to Albuquerque and attend tonight’s Omaha game. He is a sophomore who would have two years of Division I eligibility remaining.
The early signing period ends Wednesday. Players who don’t sign their binding National Letter of Intent by then can’t do so again until April.
SEASON TICKETS: UNM has sold 8,002 season tickets for men’s basketball. It sold 8,805 last season. Season tickets will remain on sale for men’s basketball through next Tuesday’s (Nov. 21) game against Tennessee Tech.