Carlton Bragg caught the ball and saw an opening.
With the first open look of Wednesday’s Lobo men’s basketball practice, the 6-foot-10 senior power forward didn’t hesitate to do what he hopes to do a lot this season – put the ball in the hoop.
The problem, as his coach saw it, certainly wasn’t that Bragg sank a shot. It was that the shot the tallest player on UNM’s roster hit that day was a 3-pointer – a shot Bragg has actually grown quite adept at hitting with regularity, leading him to flash the team’s biggest smile as he tries to talk his way into the team’s 3-point contest at Saturday night’s Cherry & Silver exhibition game in Dreamstyle Arena – the Pit.
“He made his first 3 in practice (Wednesday) of the whole practice session,” coach Paul Weir said. “And him and Corey (Manigault, Bragg’s 6-9 senior backup in the post) both feel as though they are the next Kevin Durant – and I need them to be the next Tree Rollins.”
Such are the lighthearted worries of a college basketball program in mid-October, still several weeks ahead of what is a pressure-packed season for the UNM men and Weir.
The 40-year-old coach enters his third season tasked with returning the program to a postseason it hasn’t participated in for the past five seasons, the longest such stretch in the modern era of Lobo basketball (since 1962 when Bob King took over).
But Saturday isn’t about that pressure, rather a dress rehearsal with the lights on, referees on the floor and fans in the stands. A chance to perform in a game-like atmosphere that the coach hopes doesn’t stray too far from what the team works on in practice, with the exception of post-scrimmage 3-point and dunk contests.
“These games are hard because they inevitably turn into All-Star game-ish kind of things,” Weir said.
The two rosters were chosen in a draft with two seniors leading the teams: Bragg drafted the Cherry roster and picked transfer point guard J.J. Caldwell with his first pick, while senior JaQuan Lyle drafted the Silver roster, which has Vance Jackson and newcomer Zane Martin.
The Cherry & Silver game is free, though donations are being asked for with proceeds going to the university’s “Send a Kid” program in which tickets are purchased to send city youths to Lobo games.
DUNK CONTEST: Last year, freshman point guard Drue Drinnon came out of nowhere to shock Lobo fans and win the dunk contest, including one in which he jumped over well-known fan “Snake” and then-senior Dane Kuiper for a dunk.
Weir said a knee injury likely keeps out of the dunk contest freshman wing Emmanual Kuac, who is “by far the most acrobatic, athletic player” on the roster. But Drinnon, Keith McGee and Tavian Percy are among the players who most consistently show the ability to wow fans with their dunking in such an event.
RECRUITS: UNM hopes the game is also a showcase for future Lobos.
“We have a lot of recruits coming in again this weekend,” Weir said. “I can’t tell you how excited I am about recruiting right now. The reception we’re getting from families and players and coaches is off the charts.”
Bradley Ezewiro, a 6-8 center from California who is playing this season at Oak Hill Academy in Virginia, is on an official recruiting visit to Albuquerque this weekend. He is a three-star recruit who has been offered by several power conference programs.
Also expected to be on hand on unofficial visits are some of New Mexico’s best prep players in J.B. White, William “Deuce” Benjamin, Jude Tapia and Tre Watson; and from Colorado, Javonté Johnson and Jalen Weaver.
NOT PLAYING: Manigault is suspended and will not participate in the exhibition game due to an offseason incident in which he initially gave a false name when the officers responded to a loud noise complaint at an apartment. He was not charged or cited with any wrongdoing, and his suspension is not expected to last beyond Saturday. Freshman walk-on Daniel Headings (back) and Kuac (knee) aren’t expected to play.