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With season over, Lobo transfers ready to start making their mark on program

JaQuan Lyle and Vance Jackson can’t seem to agree on the score.

The two University of New Mexico basketball transfers, who sat out this past season, spent an awful lot of time together over the past six months — often working on their games with one another while their new Lobo teammates were off on road trips or preparing for games. Lyle and Jackson couldn’t participate due to NCAA rules.

Naturally for two basketball players — Lyle, the 6-foot-5 former two-year starting point guard at Ohio State and Jackson, the 6-9 wing who started as a freshman at UConn in 2016-17 — that meant a lot of one-on-one games that often got pretty heated.

“I think I had more one-on-one wins,” Lyle recalled. “He can play, but I think I have more one-on-one wins. But, hey, who’s counting?”

Before the words were done coming out of Lyle’s mouth last week when the two sat down for an interview with the Journal, Jackson let out a loud objection.

“Me! I’m counting!” Jackson said.

So, you’re saying Lyle didn’t beat you?

“Heck no!”

The good news for the two, and for the Lobos, is that the transfer year is over. When UNM’s 2017-18 men’s basketball season ended two weeks ago in the Mountain West Tournament championship game, so began an offseason with both transfers now being fully eligible players on the same footing as their Lobo teammates.

“What they started this year was very special,” Lyle said of this past season for the Lobos. “I think we can continue to build off that and hopefully we can get a lot of wins and bring some championships back to New Mexico.”

Watching from afar

Neither Lyle, who started 31 games at Ohio State and averaged 11.4 points and 4.6 assists as a sophomore, nor Jackson, who had 21 starts a season ago for UConn while averaging 8.1 points, had ever missed more than one game due to injury or other reasons for any team they played on in the past.

Sitting out this past season, both said, was not easy.

Home games in the Pit, both say, were far more difficult to sit through than watching road games on television screens or computer monitors back in Albuquerque.

“I remember our first game at the Pit and I looked over to Quan, I was like, ‘Yo. We’re about to be here all year,'” Jackson said, recalling the moment he realized how hard sitting out this past season was truly going to be.

“It just gives you jitters,” Jackson added of games in the Pit. “The atmosphere is ridiculous. I have never seen nothing like that. Even at UConn — UConn is a basketball school and people would expect to have a crowd like that. But it is nowhere close. The Pit was another level.”

Lobo players Vance Jackson, left, JaQuan Lyle, front right, work out with other teammates and strength coach Tyler Stuart, back standing, during a workout Jan. 25. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Recent history

Having two of a potential 13 scholarships eaten up by transfers who can’t play left the present roster shorthanded, which presented a very obvious risk-reward factor.

The hope at UNM is that the wait is worth it, and the year off was spent adding more polish than rust. UNM did incorporate Jackson and Lyle as full participants in practice by midseason rather than just relegating them to scout-team duties.

“The last couple times there were two transfers here sitting out, it had some troubling short-term but exceptional long-term outcomes,” Weir said. “So we did everything we could to make sure the short term, for them and us, was not going to be hazardous. Now that it is time for ’18-19 they are as prepared as anyone on our roster.”

For now, the move seems to have had a less-damaging immediate result than the last couple times the Lobos had a pair of transfers sitting out who were being counted on to fill big roles down the road. After a bad start, this season’s roster went 19-15 (12-6 in Mountain West play, good for third place), won seven of its last eight games and made it to the MWC tournament title game.

It hasn’t always worked like that in the short term.

Following UNM’s 26-win season in 2004-05, former coach Ritchie McKay brought on transfers Aaron Johnson (Penn State) and J.R. Giddens (Kansas), who sat out the 2005-06 season. The Lobos went 17-13, lost four of their final five games and were one-and-done in the league tournament.

Following UNM’s 27-win 2013-14 season, former coach Craig Neal brought on transfers Elijah Brown (Butler) and Tim Williams (Samford), who sat out the 2014-15 season. UNM went 15-16 overall, lost nine of its final 10 games and was one-and-done in the league tournament.

The challenge ahead

Lyle and Jackson say they are in the best condition of their lives today at the end of what Weir had hoped would be more of a player-development season than simply a redshirt season.

Both are itching to get back on the court to show off their physical improvements. But now they face the tall order of not messing up the chemistry this past season’s roster created and used to become so successful by March.

After all, when UNM started the season 3-8 (2-8 vs. Division I teams), it was Lyle and Jackson who many Lobo fans started talking about as the future saviors of the program.

Both say they are well aware their job moving forward is to work for starting roles just like everyone else and not think of themselves as saviors — especially since by season’s end the Lobos were hardly a team in need of saving.

“Seeing my teammates in the championship, it just made me more hungry,” Jackson said. “I know where I’m going to be at in the offseason.”

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