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Lobos’ ‘meandering river’ nears a conclusion

Lobo sophomore Kurt Wegscheider defends Nevada’s Grant Sherfield on Jan. 2 in Lubbock, Texas. (Courtesy UNM Athletics)

The college basketball home stretch, if you will, is upon us.

And for the two beleaguered teams at the bottom of the Mountain West standings who are squaring off at the U.S. Air Force Academy on Monday night for the first of a two-game series, the immediate goals are similar, but what they mean for the future might not be as clear cut.

For the New Mexico Lobos (5-13, 1-13 MWC), under fourth- season head coach Paul Weir, another offseason of roster turnover, or at a minimum one of uneasiness, could be on the horizon. A season of historically bad results for the program and the team’s being relocated out of state for all games has taken its toll on players, fans, and administration alike.

The finish line of the 2020-21 season will be as much relief as anything.

“The goal has always been to finish this season as strong as we possibly can,” Weir said prior to his team’s trek to Colorado Springs last week for the final four scheduled home games of the season — a two-game series played last week against Wyoming and now two against 10th- place Air Force this week.

“And that’s obviously been a meandering river here throughout this journey for us,” Weir said, “but at this very moment, protecting these kids physically and mentally, while at the same time, playing as hard as we possibly can — on the court together in practice, and then in games when we get to the court — to finish this thing as best we possibly can.

“That’s been really all I’ve been talking about these past couple of months, that it hasn’t gone a lot of ways we wanted, but we’ve got to find a way to finish this thing together.”

While UNM would be left with just 16 of the originally scheduled 20 league games played after Wednesday’s series finale against the Falcons (4-16, 2-14), there are currently no plans to reschedule the two games UNM backed out of earlier this month against San Diego State. Nor are to be made up the two games that the Larimer County (Colo.) health officials called off the following week against Colorado State University after it was discovered a UNM assistant had come in contact with a COVID-19-positive person.

The circumstances of the season, UNM Athletic Director Eddie Nuñez has said from the start of the academic year, for both the Lobo basketball team and all his sports, will weigh heavily into all postseason evaluations of coaches.

As for Weir, thoughts about his future with the program are not atop his priority lists at the moment.

“Right now, you get up every day, you work as hard as you possibly can,” Weir said. “It’s an unusual time for all of us, but it’s an unusual time as a coach as well. You’re not doing a lot of coaching. You’re doing a lot of other things. And it takes up your day. And there’s not really a lot of time for me to sit around and think about things like that.

“As I’ve said before, it’s not my decision. And until that decision comes, you just work as hard as you possibly can every day with the team to give them the best experience they can possibly have.”

While final results haven’t been different of late, competitiveness for a Lobos team that was blown out with regularity in the first half of its league schedule has certainly improved, albeit against the bottom half of the league standings.

As for Air Force, the team the Lobos have a chance to leapfrog from 11th to 10th in the standings this week — and potentially as high as a tie for 9th place at season’s end — the home stretch has a little more look to the future than the Lobos’ hope to just get through it all.

Joe Scott, in the first year of his second stint with the Falcons, hopes to re-establish the 3-point heavy system that he rode to a 2004 Mountain West championship. So, while the next four games (AFA still plays at CSU after this UNM series), are of course important, there is also a clear feel of looking toward the 2021-22 season.

“I think these last two weeks, three weeks (of the season and MWC Tournament) are going to be important to sort of cement home, heading into Year 2, to sort of cement home that, ‘Hey. This is how we’re going to play,'” Scott said.

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