Games off: Lobos basketball calls off SDSU series, maybe season

UNM Lobo Head Men’s Basketball Coach Paul Weir. (Jason Farmer for the Journal)

With more players reportedly considering opting out of what has been a historically bad season, the University of New Mexico men’s basketball team has informed the Mountain West Conference it has to postpone this week’s two-game series against San Diego State due to concerns about player availability.

Neither the league office nor either school would officially confirm the reason for the series being postponed. It was first reported Tuesday morning by both the Journal and the San Diego Union-Tribune.

An official announcement is expected from all three entities Wednesday and should cover whether the teams plan to attempt to reschedule the series.

The Aztecs did not get on their scheduled Tuesday afternoon charter flight nor did the Lobos board the bus to Lubbock, Texas, where the games were scheduled for Wednesday and Friday at Lubbock Christian University’s Rip Griffin Center.

New Mexico’s public health order prohibits college games from being played inside the state’s borders.

While both schools still list the games on their websites, a Tuesday evening “Lobos Weekly” email had the game removed from its upcoming events graphic.

UNM has informed conference officials it does not have the league-mandated seven available scholarship players to proceed with the series. The Journal has been told by a person close to the UNM program that there are no current COVID-19 cases in the program.

After walking off the court with eight available scholarship players after losing 64-62 at Fresno State University on Saturday, it remains unclear what happened since then to bring the number down to six.

It also remains unclear when the Lobos (5-11, 1-11 Mountain West Conference) might again have enough players to resume play this season, if at all.

UNM started the fall semester with 13 scholarship players. One (Assane Ndiaye) has never been cleared medically to play; two (Keith McGee and Nolan Dorsey) already have opted out of the season; one (Rod Brown) was injured this past weekend; and one more (Isaiah Marin) missed last week’s series in California due to an unspecified, but non-COVID, illness.

Lobo men’s basketball head coach Paul Weir did not appear on Tuesday’s “Lobo Talk” coaches radio show, which instead this week had men’s tennis head coach Ben Dunbar and volleyball coach Jon Newman-Gonchar.

The Aztecs were about to start a morning practice Tuesday before their trip to Texas when they learned the series was postponed.

“We were all ready to go,” Aztecs coach Brian Dutcher told the Union-Tribune. “Obviously, New Mexico decided they couldn’t compete. I know they’ve had as hard a year as anybody, they haven’t been at home, they’ve been on the road the whole time. I understand how hard it’s been. But until we hear some official word from them on why (they can’t play), I can’t speculate.”

The Journal has learned that at least two additional Lobo players had already informed the coaching staff or were on the verge of announcing their opt-outs for the remainder of the season, and maybe not entirely by their own choice but at the urging of staff.

Weir has been open about players struggling through the circumstances the team has faced amid the ongoing pandemic and his willingness to support them — even if not playing the rest of the season was what they felt was best.

Three players have left the team since mid-August. Senior guard Zane Martin transferred to Towson University in Maryland in the weeks prior to the fall semester starting and senior guard Keith McGee and freshman point guard Nolan Dorsey left during the season. Each publicly cited either uncertainty about whether a season would occur or mental health concerns as part of the reason for leaving.

But other than their social media posts, none of those players has talked with the Journal or other media to elaborate on their decisions.

Weir acknowledged two weeks ago that he had been trying to petition the league to get some time off for his team for mental health purposes, but with no luck.

In fact, the Journal asked on Jan. 21 why the location of the SDSU series had not yet been officially confirmed.

“I’ve asked through (UNM’s athletic director Eddie Nuñez) to the league office for multiple scheduling changes through this journey,” Weir said.

“I have not been very successful at those. So where and when the San Diego State game is played, I think we’re still working on. We obviously have to speed that up. I’ve been kind of trying to do some things that have been the best interest of our team from a physical and mental health perspective but haven’t been able to really get anybody else to budge on that.”

The state of New Mexico two weeks ago amended its “COVID-Safe Practices for Intercollegiate Sports” rule that allowed for college teams to again be allowed to practice in the state as long as they continue with their three times per week PCR testing for COVID-19. Those teams still cannot play home games.

Weir made clear his opinion that the decision to relax the rules wouldn’t help his team when it would still be required to play the rest of the season out of state anyway.

“Practicing at home doesn’t really affect us a great deal right now,” Weir said.

Weir is in the fourth year of a six-year contract with UNM, and public cries for his removal as coach have grown louder this season. The Lobos have already posted their worst conference start to a season since the 1950s and have already tied for the most losses in league play in the 22-year Mountain West era with eight games remaining on the schedule.

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