Part of it was the crowd. Part of it was basketball’s dumb luck that dictates when some shots fall and others don’t.
But another clear-as-day vision on the court in the second half of the University of New Mexico men’s basketball team’s Jan. 20 win over San Diego State inside Dreamstyle Arena was a Lobos roster full of energy down the stretch.
As Aztecs players used to sea-level training bent over and tugged on their shorts during free throws and dead-ball situations, Lobo players waved to the crowd, hustled down loose balls while outrunning and outscoring their Mountain West rivals 41-27 in the second half for a 79-75 win.
“We just know that people are going to wear down,” senior point guard Antino Jackson said after the game.
That’s been the goal for first-year head coach Paul Weir and Lobos strength and conditioning coach Tyler Stuart, 35, since both started this offseason at UNM: Create a style — a program identity, really — built on hard work and elite conditioning that just might give this ragtag roster a chance to close the gap on bigger, stronger and more athletic teams.
Of course, it almost seems to be an introductory press conference requirement anymore for a new coach to promise hard work and faster play.
Weir picked up the phone and called University of Florida men’s basketball strength and conditioning coordinator Preston Greene and asked one question: Whom do I need to hire to make it happen?
“If he told me the person I needed to go get was in Alaska, I would have gone to Alaska to try and get him,” said Weir. “It turns out the right person for what I wanted to do was right there at Florida with him.”
Greene recommended, without hesitation, his colleague.
After five years working with the Gators, Stuart liked what he heard from Weir enough to head out west and become the Lobos’ new strength and conditioning coordinator — the man actually tasked with bringing Weir’s almost mad scientist vision of conditioning to reality.
“Coach Weir really wanted someone who is in the foreground, someone who is very holistic with the approach to everything with these guys,” Stuart said. “For me, to drive across the country, I wanted to make sure I was on the same page with coach Weir. Talking with him, we just saw eye to eye on everything.”
Including one not-so-popular realization. UNM’s roster wasn’t exactly one full of athletes in peak physical condition.
Pretty much every Lobo, Stuart said, had a “very low” training age. Few had any sense of proper nutrition. Some couldn’t run the mile in the time Weir required in order to practice on the court. At least five players had over 10 percent body fat, unacceptable in Stuart’s vision for what the program was trying to do.
“They needed a kick in the pants,” Stuart said.
Things got tough in a hurry. From weekly strongman competitions including flipping tires in the hot summer parking lots around the Pit, to being timed running up and down every step in the Pit, the Lobos were pushed. And to accompany it all, Stuart was now in charge of their nutrition, including morning breakfasts together with smoothies, shakes, nutritional supplements and regular weight checks.
“I told them, ‘Look. You’re going to hate it sometimes,'” Stuart said. “‘It’s going to be worse than anything you’ve ever done. But I promise you — I’ve been doing this for 10 years, boys, I promise you — the (expletive) is going to pay off.'”
The morning after scoring seven points over the final 1 minute and 7 seconds of a win at UNLV earlier this month, junior guard Anthony Mathis said it was all about the confidence — and conditioning.
“It’s wild,” Mathis said of Stuart’s off- and in-season programs. “I’ve never been through anything like that in my life, and I’m probably the one who needed it the most. My body — before Tyler got me, everybody would make jokes that I looked like a college golfer. I had a beer belly. I had no body whatsoever.
“Tyler came and he changed that.”