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Not all Lobos are happy despite strong 9-2 start

UNM guard Keith McGee is among several Lobo players frustrated with their minutes. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

Kevin Mackey certainly isn’t the first, or only person to say it.

But the former Cleveland State head coach and current Indiana Pacers scout, who has become one of the go-to mentors of UNM men’s basketball coach Paul Weir, seems to be the one who has said it enough to have it stick in the mind of the Lobos’ third-year coach.

Now, it’s advice Weir is trying to use to explain the challenge of dealing with the brewing problem of player frustration on a roster of a team that has jumped out to a 9-2 record this season, including 2-0 in Mountain West Conference play.

“Kevin Mackey always tells me — your greatest strength is your greatest weakness and your greatest weaknesses are your greatest strengths,” Weir said. “Our great strength is our depth, but it also becomes a weakness because guys don’t necessarily get the minutes, the touches, the feeling of having an impact on the game that they’re used to or that they’ve had throughout their careers.

“It’s a huge battle for us. If they can buy into it, we could be a terrific team.”

The unique challenge facing Weir is that in just his third season, he has had a complete roster and coaching staff overhaul and turned a program that was in trouble and hit with a mass player exodus at the end of the 2017 season and into his own program. And he did so through higher-level recruiting in the transfer and junior college ranks than what has been done at UNM in a long time.

But that also means a lot of individual talents who were used to high- volume usage or felt they were coming into a situation suited for them to be high-usage players becoming dissatisfied with their roles on what has been a rather successful team so far.

The frustration has been evident on the team’s bench. Many fans have reached out to the Journal or posted on social-media platforms asking about body-language issues on the bench and the clear frustrations of several players. Like the players, many fans want to see certain players get more minutes, but the reality is UNM is keeping a relatively high number of players involved, at least compared to other college teams.

Zane Martin was upset during the Nov. 21 game at New Mexico State and was benched the second half as a result. He posted comments critical of the role he thought he would be playing on Twitter after the game, then suspended his account altogether. He has since reopened the account.

Vance Jackson’s on-court struggles and frustration with his role have also led to his suspending his Twitter account recently.

Recently, backup guard Keith McGee was criticized by fans on social media and several who reached out to the Journal for seeming disengaged on the team bench, wearing his hood and sitting away from players as his minutes have gone down. After averaging 16.7 minutes in his first seven games of the season, he hasn’t reached 10 minutes in a game in the past four.

Saturday, McGee, clearly aware of the criticism, was dancing on the bench throughout the Lobos’ win at Wyoming, celebrating big plays and being as engaged as any player, despite playing just five minutes.

When video of one of his dances went relatively viral, at least in the Lobo fans’ world, he responded on Twitter after the game, “Of course I love cheering my teammates on ima team player I just don’t play (smiling emoji).”

Asked about McGee’s engagement Saturday, Weir said he noticed, but it wasn’t anything from the coaching staff.

“I honestly have not talked to Keith,” Weir said. “I talk to these guys every day. I know how hard it is to have the depth that we have.”

UNM’s formula is working at 9-2 on the season, but the bench minutes used (27.9% of the team’s minutes are from non-starters) ranks just 244th in Division I basketball.

Then again, after using 21 starting lineups in 2017-18 and 22 starting lineups last year, and being heavily criticized for it, Weir has stuck with one this year, but players knowing their more defined roles hasn’t erased frustrations.
UNM has two players average more than 30 minutes a game and not one of the team’s 11 opponents so far has played more players 15 minutes in their game vs. UNM than the Lobos have. UNM has had just one of 11 games where at least seven players didn’t play 15 minutes.

“It’s a challenge,” Weir said. “But I’d rather them be upset they aren’t playing more than not have that in them. They should want to be playing more.”

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