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Lobos likely to step up pressure in Game Two vs. CSU-Northridge

The Lobos expect to use a high-pressure defense this season. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

The well-wishes and small talk from fellow coaches to Paul Weir at last month’s preseason Mountain West media conference all seemed to eventually lead to the same, common destination.

“I’ve got every coach here asking me, ‘Coach, how much are you pressing? How much are you pressing?'” Weir, the third year UNM Lobos basketball coach, told a group of reporters.

Despite the Lobos (1-0) not showing their cards in Wednesday’s season-opening win against Division II Eastern New Mexico, the answer to the full-court pressure question likely will begin to reveal itself on the court in Saturday night’s home game against visiting Cal State Northridge (0-1).

While the entirety of the pressure scheme likely won’t be unveiled, it will start to show itself.

“I’m not being coy other than we’re looking through it,” Weir said in the preseason about the press. “We’re working on some zone presses, some man presses, some full court, some three-quarter court. …

“I’ve got going to find a way to feed 13 guys and part of that is to play that way in order to give more guys an opportunity and me not have a mutiny at the end of the bench every night.”

Not that most fans who watched last season’s Lobos need the validation, but according to KenPom.com, UNM ranked 202 out of 353 Division I teams last season in defensive efficiency. It ranked 204th in Weir’s first season as head coach.

Based on those numbers, it would seem the press hasn’t exactly been working for UNM, a program ranked in the top 100 in defensive efficiency eight times in the decade coached by Steve Alford and Craig Neal with a low in that era of 143rd (2015-16).

But Weir, who was invited in 2017 to help coach the Canadian Junior National Team as a defensive coordinator and also was in charge of defense of several of the top 100-ranked New Mexico State defenses when he was an assistant coach in Las Cruces, isn’t about to give up on the scheme he believes gives his program the best chance to win.

In fact, he’s doubling down on it, inviting last month for the third preseason in a row former Cleveland State coach and Indiana Pacers coach Kevin Mackey to Albuquerque as a consultant for the press and hiring in the offseason assistant coach Dan McHale, who comes from the Rick Pitino coaching tree that focuses on full-court pressure.

“We’re spending a lot of time on it,” Weir said of defense in general, not only the press. “It’s probably our No. 1 mantra every day. It’s what we practice the most. It’s what we preach the most. It’s what we stat the most. It’s everything we’re trying to embrace. We have a lot of very talented offensive players. … We know we have enough guys to be a talented offensive team. Wherever we end up finishing will be dictated by how well we defend. If we defend as a good unit, I feel as though we can compete for a conference championship.”

Three new players in particular who are expected to be in the primary back-court rotation this season are going to be relied on heavily to improve the Lobos defensively — J.J. Caldwell, the 6-foot-1 quick-footed Texas A&M transfer who is the team’s primary point guard and showed glimpses of his defensive capabilities on Wednesday on the perimeter; Zane Martin, the 6-4 Towson transfer; and Vante Hendrix, the 6-5 Utah transfer who becomes eligible to play in mid-December.

On Wednesday, the Lobos didn’t show much press. And while fans did groan as the Greyhounds hit six first-half 3-pointers (they hit just 2-of-12 tries in the second half), UNM’s defense held its D-II opponent to a mere 0.85 points per possession and suffered far more setbacks due to the team’s 21 turnovers and a lack of boxing out on the defensive boards.

OFFICIAL VISIT: Santa Fe High junior wing J.B. White, the highly ranked recruit who has given a commitment to play for the Lobos as part of the 2021 recruiting class, has already made several unofficial recruiting visits to Albuquerque.

This weekend, he is on an official recruiting visit with the Lobos and will attend the CSUN game. He also attended Friday night’s Lobo women’s basketball game and toured the university and athletic department’s academic and basketball facilities with the coaching staff.

NOT EXPECTED: Liame Diane would have been, inarguably, one of the best individual talents the Lobos played this season. The 6-foot-7 CSUN forward scored 31 on UNM in last year’s season opener, his first college game. He went on to average 24.8 points per game (sixth best in the nation) and was the first player to ever win Big West Player, Newcomer and Freshman of the Year honors.

Now, he isn’t expected to play. After missing Tuesday’s opener at Oregon State, it was reported in an Associated Press article that he is academically ineligible, though it wasn’t clear when he’d return or if the ruling was just one-game, multiple-game, or season-long sort of suspension.

“Right now we’re without him and we don’t know for how long,” CSUN coach Mark Gottfried told the Associated Press. “It leaves us with a hole, but we’ve gotta solve the problem.”

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