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No expectations led the UNM Lobos two years ago to go from being picked ninth in a preseason poll to finishing third in the Mountain West and playing in the league’s conference tournament championship game with an NCAA Tournament berth on the line.
Last season, a more talented, though in hindsight deeply flawed roster, couldn’t meet expectations, extending to five the number of seasons the once-proud program has failed to play in a postseason tournament.
So where are the Lobos now?
There’s good news and bad news as the national magazines have hit newsstands and college basketball practice has officially started around the country. (The Lobos start Friday afternoon for the first of 30 practices before the Nov. 6 opener.)
On the one hand, the national media seem to almost universally stipulate that the Lobos are loaded with talent.
“On paper, New Mexico has assembled the most talented 2019-20 roster in the Mountain West,” writes Lindy’s College Basketball preview magazine.
On the other hand, it’s clear not all are sold on the ability of a still raw coaching staff under third-year UNM head coach Paul Weir to pull the right strings and create a the sort of winning chemistry that last season’s squad never developed.
This is the first season the roster is entirely Weir’s – no players or assistant coaches remain from the Craig Neal era. So, can the collection of mostly second-chance transfers come together for him?
“Weir has plenty of talent at his disposal this season, perhaps the most in the conference, but he will have to figure out role allocation and how to keep everyone happy,” writes Athlon’s season preview magazine.
Added Lindy’s, “the Lobos were also pretty loaded last season, and then the chemistry experiment failed.”
Of the three primary national magazines on newsstands now, here’s the breakdown of preseason predictions for the Lobos’ finish in the MWC:
• No. 2 – Lindy’s
• No. 3 – Athlon
• No. 4 – Street & Smith’s
Defending champion Utah State is picked by pretty much all pundits to win the league and is ranked as high as No. 15 in the country in one preseason poll with most also picking senior Aggie guard Sam Merrill to repeat as the league’s Player of the Year.
But plenty of Lobos are getting love, too.
Most notably, junior wing Vance Jackson is on the cover of the regional edition of Lindy’s and is picked as a preseason first-team player by Lindy’s and Street & Smith’s while tabbed by Lindy’s as a second-0teamer.
Senior post Carlton Bragg is a third- team choice for Lindy’s, and senior JaQuan Lyle is on the Street & Smith’s All-Newcomer team.
The Mountain West preseason media poll will be released in mid-October.
DANCING KATZ: In a video posted on NCAA.com, one-time Journal reporter Andy Katz in his MWC preview predicted Utah State to win the conference, but for the Lobos to beat them in the MWC Tournament and earn an automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament.
“My bold prediction out of the Mountain West Conference,” Katz said, “is look for New Mexico. They’ve got a very good frontcourt – you’ve got Vance Jackson, Carlton Bragg. I think they’re going to end up playing Utah State in the Mountain West Conference title game in Las Vegas (Nev.). … I think they may steal that bid, ensuring that the Mountain West Conference gets multiple bids this season in 2020.”
— Andy Katz (@TheAndyKatz) September 25, 2019
FRESHMAN LOVE: Legendary prep basketball journalist Frank Burlison writes for Lindy’s of the newcomer who “Will take you by surprise,” naming Lobos freshman wing Emmanuel Kuac, the 6-foot-6 wing from Canada who played high school basketball in Utah: “He provides New Mexico with one of the most athletically explosive newcomers in the MW.”
NEW MEXICO STATE: New Mexico State, coming off a 30-win season and in these parts the proud holder of a five-game win streak against the rival Lobos, isn’t making it easy to always claim to be the type of team nobody knows about and gets no respect.
The cover of the October edition of Basketball Times, a bit of a trade magazine targeting mostly college basketball media and coaches around the country, has a picture of senior NMSU point guard A.J. Harris and the headline “Under the Radar U.”
They won't be under the radar long. Top 25 could happen this season and winning the Cayman Islands Tourney is possible. … @BasketballTimes and @MrMattCraig doing their part to give the @NMStateMBB Aggies some national attention, especially among the writers in the sport. pic.twitter.com/UcpEo0Wfik
— Geoff Grammer (@GeoffGrammer) September 26, 2019
The magazine features a season preview of the Aggies, pointing out that “Too few are talking about the team that almost beat the team that almost beat Virginia,” a reference to the Aggies being a buzzer-beating 3-pointer away from upsetting Auburn in the opening round of last year’s NCAA Tournament, only to see Auburn advance to the Final Four and nearly beat eventual national champion Virginia.
As for Athlon, Lindy’s and Street & Smith’s, all three pick the Aggies to win the Western Athletic Conference once again.