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Lobos pump the brakes successfully

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Lobo guard Zane Martin, right, pulls away from Air Force’s A.J. Walker, bottom, late in the second half of their Jan. 11 game in Dreamstyle Arena – the Pit. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Is the run and stun done?

It’s hard to say for sure, but whether it be the necessary byproduct of having a suddenly short-handed roster (UNM has lost four starters in the past month and expects that to be the case once again for Saturday’s road game at Nevada), or be it a simple change in coaching philosophy, the fact is these Lobos are slowing things down.

At least a little bit.

The Lobos (16-5, 5-3 Mountain West) still lead the conference in tempo, averaging 74.7 possessions per league game. And in all Division I games this season, UNM ranks 21st nationally (out of 353 teams) at 72.7 possessions per game, per KenPom.com.

But as the team is now without all three point guards it entered the season with (starter J.J. Caldwell remains on an indefinite suspension, leading scorer JaQuan Lyle is nursing a knee injury and is questionable to return Saturday, and sophomore Drue Drinnon transferred out of the program the week of the season opener), pushing temp without natural ball-handlers is a major concern.

“It’s been an interesting two years, really,” UNM coach Paul Weir said. “I came here with designs and intents (to run on offense, press on defense). …

“I don’t know if (slowing the tempo on Tuesday) was necessarily a style of play decision as it was just straight numbers. When you take four guys out of any mix, even if it’s not four starters – let’s just say four of your top eight or four of your top nine – it’s going to impact what you’re able to do if you want to win the game.”

Since the disastrous 84-59 loss in Brooklyn, New York, on Nov. 25 to Auburn – a team built on running and gunning like the Lobos say they want to play – the Lobos’ next 11 wins were played at an average tempo of 70.6 possessions per game with fewer turnovers than the Lobos normally have and, for the most part, better defensive efficiency numbers for UNM.

They’re still playing slightly above the national average of 68.4 possessions per game, but the team is clearly better at about 70 a game as opposed to in UNM’s past three losses – at San Jose State on Jan. 1 and last week’s blowouts at Colorado State by 33 points and at UNLV by 21 – when the games had an average of 79.3 possessions.

“We’re going to rest a little bit more on offense,” Weir said after Tuesday’s 72-possession game against SJSU. “We’re going to rest a little bit more going to the (offensive) glass. We’re going to rest a little bit more in certain areas so that we can play harder in the other areas that matter. …

“We’re a very good 5-on-5 basketball team. We can defend in the half court and we can score in the half court. When the game gets a little away from us and we rush and we take bad shots or we do too much defensively, it gets us into a game that we’re not great at.”

Tuesday in a dominating 86-59 victory, the Lobos walked the ball up the court against a high-tempo (34th nationally out of 353 teams) San Jose State team and never really getting started in running an offensive set or play until fewer than 20 seconds were showing on the shot clock – a drastic change for a team whose average offensive possession this season has lasted 15.8 seconds. And they almost quit trying for offensive rebounds (they grabbed five to SJSU’s 16) in an effort to get back on defense.

The result? A team down to just eight scholarship players committing only 11 turnovers, scoring 1.19 points per possession and displaying arguably the most energetic defense of the season. UNM held SJSU to 0.82 points per possession, the second lowest of the season behind only the 0.81 ppp the Lobos held Wisconsin to in a 59-50 win on Nov. 26, the day after that Auburn blowout.

And the players seem to be thriving in a slower tempo.

“Most definitely,” said Lobo forward Corey Manigault. “It saves a lot of energy, too. It keeps everyone involved, everyone happy, too.”

So will it change long term? Weir isn’t committing.

Prior to Weir, UNM ranked in the top 100 nationally in tempo just twice since the 1996-97 season, per KenPom.com. Since he was hired: 42nd out of 353 (2017-18), 15th (2018-19) and 21st (this season).


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