If you felt life as a Lobo fan was tough over the past couple months, odds are good you didn’t wear your disappointment quite like second-year head coach Paul Weir.
Whether or not Saturday night’s monumental victory over previously undefeated and No. 6-ranked Nevada will actually brighten his inner demeanor is unclear. But the victory, one predicated on a stellar defensive effort, was some much-needed validation for his recent decision to toss out some of the same core principles that earned Weir so much praise a season ago when he refused to adjust them despite that team’s 3-8 start to the season.
This season’s roster, one blessed with obvious size and offensive gifts, stumbled again through a dismal nonconference showing, going 5-6 through 11 games. Through it all, Weir wrestled internally with the reality that this roster, despite all the expectations, simply wasn’t capable of playing the high-pressure man defense in the half court he wanted his program to be known for.
So, the morning after a Dec. 18 loss to North Texas, he gathered his team at 5 a.m. in Dreamstyle Arena – the Pit and told them things were about to change.
“I reflect back and think of the previous games we had and why it maybe took me so long to maybe make some of the adjustments that we’ve made to our team, but I’m glad we’ve at least gotten to here now and hopefully it will serve us very well going forward,” Weir said Saturday. “… The only reason we lost some games has nothing to do with (the players), it might just be because they had a bad basketball coach for 11 games. Hopefully I’ll continue to not get in the way of good players being good players.”
The Lobos scrapped their all-man, all-the-time approach to defense and implemented a zone scheme that wasn’t ready for Penn a few days later, leading to another loss.
The next two weeks, the Lobos crammed what most teams spend an entire offseason learning into a crash course implementing a new 2-3 zone defense (yes, it looks like a 3-2 or even a 4-1 at times, but it is a 2-3 concept with both wings playing intentionally high).
The result? Two games, two Mountain West Conference wins – 65-58 at Air Force and 85-58 vs. No. 6 Nevada – without a single possession of man defense in the half court and a renewed confidence because of it.
But, regardless of what one may think of the very public buck-stops-here mantra of the coach who has tried to absorb any potential criticism of his players, getting to the realization he had to shift gears in the middle of the season, and then actually doing something about it, wasn’t easy on Weir.
“Personally I’ve been in a very dark place for a month now,” Weir said Saturday night, red sweater still soaked after his team doused him with water in a postgame locker room celebration. “And it hasn’t made me a great person at times that I’m proud of – a great husband at times I’m proud of. But this is what this profession does to you. So now you sit here and you think about whether all this stuff is worth it and things like that.
“I’m really happy we got the win. I’m happy for our players. I’m happy for Lobo fans and Lobo basketball, but Paul Weir still has a long way to go.”
As Weir walked out of the press room, Lobos senior guard Anthony Mathis stopped him for a hug before Mathis talked to reporters after his Lobo-legend-making 27-point performance.
“(He said) he loved me,” said Mathis when asked what the two said. “And I love him. I love everybody in this program.”
Sophomore Vance Jackson said the midseason defensive reboot was rough, but worth it.
“It came down to practice,” Jackson said. “We’ve been putting a lot of work in.”
Earlier in the week, Mathis told the Journal there wasn’t a player on the team who questioned Weir for changing the defense in the middle of the season.
“It’s pretty tough, but I have full confidence in coach Weir and he knows what he’s doing,” Mathis said. “Everybody’s buying in. … We realize we struggled early on with defense and we really locked in to try and get better at that.”