LAS VEGAS, Nev. – Basketball’s biggest buzz word found its way into the University of New Mexico’s postgame press conference on Thursday night.
Following the Lobos’ 91-83 loss to Utah State in the Mountain West tournament quarterfinals, departing seniors, as they always are in such situations, are asked to reflect on what the past season meant to them and what they feel the program, which finished 14-18, will be like without them.
“The only thing I would say is it’s a process,” said Lobo senior guard Anthony Mathis, who endured a process unlike most who have donned the cherry and silver.
“I mean, everybody – we heard last year how great this team was going to be this year. It’s truly a process. … Obviously this year was not what it was supposed to be. Like coach (Paul Weir) said in the locker room, we had a big piece of humble pie this year as individual players and as a team. And everybody has a lot of work to do.”
For Mathis and fellow senior Dane Kuiper, that work will take on more of an individual role as both hope to play beyond their college days before putting to use the degrees they earned at UNM – Mathis in criminology, Kuiper in communications.
So, what’s the next step for year three of the Paul Weir era?
The heat will be on the 39-year-old, who is still well-regarded in circles around the league as a bright, young coach on the rise – but who already has a vocal group of critics calling for him to be fired after an overachieving first season was followed by a season of lofty, but unfulfilled, expectations.
Weir said he has a lot of evaluating to do, internally and of the roster, moving forward.
Here are some thoughts he shared Thursday and a brief look ahead at the roster moving forward:
ON OFFENSE: Weir thought he had a roster of shooters this season.
The numbers, frankly, prove otherwise.
“At the end of the day, it was Chuck Daly (who said), shooting makes up for a multitude of sins,” Weir said. “If you really look at our year, the reality is we just didn’t shoot the ball well. Last year I think we had six guys, 35 percent or above from 3. And this year we had two. And I didn’t anticipate that. I don’t think those players anticipated that. …
“So that’s on me obviously as a coach. That’s something about evaluation, about recruiting, about training, about development. For it to have that many guys kind of fall off percentage-wise in a single year is something I have to like really reevaluate and make sure going forward either, A, we’re robust enough to be able to withstand that; and then, B, not actually have that happen.”
DEFENSE: It was apparent in non-conference these Lobos didn’t have the foot speed, or ability, to defend like last year’s team did. So, the press was pulled back. Man defense was switched to zone. The team never seemed sure of itself for more than a game or two at a time, though it didn’t have as bad a season statistically on defense as some critics would believe. The Lobos ranked sixth in defense in the 11-team MWC.
From an identity standpoint, though, it’s all about the press for Weir. And he does plan to give it another try as he both thinks it can work, but even more importantly feels it’s a culture-setting commitment from an effort standpoint that he wants his players to buy into.
And it sure looked like they bought in for two games in Las Vegas this week with the press.
“I thought for these two particular teams we could definitely have (pressed all game),” Weir said. “I don’t necessarily feel that way about the entire conference. There’s some other teams (with quicker guards), I don’t know if I necessarily would have felt that way. But eventually I’d like to get to a way that we feel that way no matter who we play.”
ROSTER: For now, Mathis and Kuiper are the two players leaving. The departure of Karim Ezzeddine, who quit the team in January, opens a third scholarship.
College basketball averages more than two transfers per offseason at the Division I level, so UNM will likely experience it, too.
UNM has a signed commitment from 6-foot-7 wing Emmanuel Andrew, a high school senior in Utah. Guards J.J. Caldwell, formerly of Texas A&M, and Vante Hendrix, formerly of Utah, are both already enrolled in online classes at UNM, though not yet on scholarship until the summer. Both are likely to be eligible in December, but UNM is hopeful Caldwell can be eligible by the beginning of the season.
UNM hopes a healthy JaQuan Lyle, the Ohio State transfer who tore his Achilles in September, and the eligibility of guard Zane Martin, who averaged 20 points per game at Towson last season and sat out this season as a transfer, will give the Lobos one of the top backcourts in the league.