In a season hard to figure out, Vante Hendrix may be the enigma of all enigmas on the Lobo basketball team.
At times, the mile-a-minute, never quit and never back down attitude of the 6-foot-5 sophomore guard appears to be exactly what the Lobos need.
That was the case in the second half of Tuesday’s blowout loss at No. 4 San Diego State when, in a game no other Lobo scored in double figures and many appeared mentally checked out midway through the second half, it was Hendrix still diving for loose balls, fighting for rebounds and scrapping his way to a career-high 20 points.
He scored 12 of UNM’s 26 second half points and was the only reason UNM didn’t lose by 40.
On a team in which effort is starting to be questioned by fans and more than a few television announcers calling Lobo games this season, there isn’t a player on the roster who gives more than Hendrix.
“My role is to just go in and help my teammates get better or try and score, bring a lot of energy,” Hendrix told the Journal on Thursday when asked how he would describe his role with the Lobos. “And I would say just try to do all the trash work.”
On the other hand, knowing only one speed doesn’t always suit him well.
Just last Saturday, Hendrix was benched for the second half of the Wyoming game — the third time that’s happened in just the 14 games he’s played for UNM — for either interactions with coaches or teammates that left Paul Weir saying, as he has a couple times this season, “I’m still learning how to coach Vante.”
Hendrix has been tossed from some Lobo practices, drawn five technical fouls in 14 games played, the most on UNM’s roster for the entire 26-game season, and has no problem getting after teammates, even on the court during games.
Basically, he gives the Lobos exactly what they need, until he gives them too much of it.
“I learn from the past to keep control and not burn out in the first half and when something goes wrong to just stay calm at all times,” Hendrix said.
Weir says that while Hendrix is in his second collegiate year, the University of Utah transfer is still very young in his basketball maturity at this level and the learning process continues for all.
“I think part of it is he’s barely finishing his freshman year,” Weir said, referring to Vante having played just 18 total games so far (four at Utah and 14 at UNM). “Look at the amount of games he played at Utah, the amount of games here — he hasn’t even finished a full year (of games). He’s really a freshman. I’m so excited about what he’s going to bring to us, our program our team. But right now, we’re going to have to live with a little bit of ups and downs. …
“We want him to be like all the other guys, but the reality is he maybe is a young Matt Mitchell (San Diego State’s guard who scored 22 points vs. UNM on Tuesday), he is a young player that you’re looking at and you’re saying, ‘You know what? In a year or two, this kid is going to be a really impactful player, consistently on the court.’ Right now, it’s just coming in spurts here and there. When it happens, obviously, we’re excited.”
Weir added Thursday that any issues there have been thus far with Hendrix “are good problems to have,” because they seem rooted in a player wanting to give so much effort and intensity at all times. Reining that in without totally reining in Hendrix is the challenge for the Lobos staff now.
As the 2019-20 season winds down, Hendrix is clearly a big piece of the Lobos basketball future. But while being a spark plug, fill any role type of sixth man this season is one thing, being a likely starter in the future might bring with it an entirely different role and expectation.
Whatever his overall role evolves into down the road, Hendrix says crashing the boards and playing hard, physical defense will always be part of his game.
“I take it as a goal to not let that dude get what he’s been averaging the whole year — keep it below that,” Hendrix said. “… I feel like I’m definitely still learning.”