In mid-October, Lobo men’s basketball players filled out the latest quiz handed out by their third-year coach, Paul Weir.
At the end of this particular version, the final question asked each player to list who they thought should be the team’s captain.
Two names appeared on every piece of paper: Carlton Bragg and JaQuan Lyle.
“That isn’t something I ask for,” Weir said. “That isn’t something I’ve said, like ‘hey look for these guys’ or ‘follow these guys.’
“That’s just leaders organically emerging.”
PODCAST: To listen to the Talking Grammer podcast conversation with JaQuan Lyle and Carlton Bragg, CLICK HERE.
In 2015, the two now 23-year-old seniors were top-50 national high school recruits being wooed by every major college program in the nation – prospects clearly above the recruiting ceiling of UNM at that time.
Five seasons later, nobody could have envisioned they would not only still be in college basketball, but would be roommates, calling Albuquerque home and being tasked with leading the University of New Mexico men’s basketball program out of what has grown into the longest postseason NCAA or NIT drought (five seasons) since Bob King became the coach in 1962.
“I’m just blessed,” says Bragg, the 6-foot-10 former McDonald’s All American who played two seasons at Kansas before troubles off the court led to his departure. “All I’ve got to say is thank God for making me be here on this journey. It’s been a good journey, but it’s not finished yet. We’re just getting started.”
He and Lyle, a 6-5 guard who transferred from Ohio State two years ago and missed last season due to a torn Achilles, are unlikely leaders of a talented Lobos roster some feel may, at long last, get back into contention for a league title it last won in 2013.
Their season starts at 7 p.m. Wednesday in Dreamstyle Arena – the Pit against NCAA Division II Eastern New Mexico.
“Pressure is a word that, in my household, we never used because we don’t believe in it,” said Lyle. “We just know we have to come out and produce every day. … The only people that can stop us is us at this point.”
Stopping themselves is something it appeared Bragg and Lyle already did at their last stops. For Bragg, there was also a brief stop at Arizona State that didn’t work out, leading him to UNM. For Lyle, there was also his association as a high school recruit with the now infamous recruiting/escort scandal at Louisville before ultimately attending Ohio State.
As the world of college athletics goes, the players were forced to carry the tag of misfits. Meanwhile, Kansas and Louisville, despite both being hit with major NCAA infractions, continue on as blue blood programs currently ranked No. 3 and No. 5 in the nation, respectively.
Weir says both have earned their place at UNM.
“These two guys are clearly our guys,” Weir said. “The players know that. I know that. Now it’s going to be a question of are they going to be able to do that maturely and positively throughout the entire season. I’m hopeful they can.”
Bragg says the birth of his son a couple years ago was a major turning point in his own maturity. For Lyle, being away from the game two years – one due to NCAA transfer rules and another due to injury – gave him new perspective.
“That’s something that me and him have talked about,” Weir said. “As crazy as it sounds, he had that (extra) year to sit out, but maybe that’s the blessing of what last year was – one more year to continue to grow up, put all this in perspective and grow as a young man into the leader that he is right now. And right now, he’s terrific.”
With their well-documented pasts behind them, both still have long-term goals of playing professional basketball at the highest level. But they have other plans first.
“Just being the best leader I can, on and off the court, a whole season,” Lyle said. “A lot of people question my leadership. I have to work on that every day.”
Added Bragg, success is theirs for the taking, as long as they don’t veer from the course they’re now on and “keep working hard and keep taking that step every day, and there’s no stopping us. I truly believe that.”