A rather significant thing happened in the Lobo men’s basketball coaching tenure of Richard Pitino this week.
He actually got to meet some of his players in person for the first time.
With the wildly unique past year-plus of pandemic-related college basketball recruiting restrictions on in-person visits, Monday’s first day of summer classes at UNM brought to Albuquerque some new players who maybe have never before met each other or some of their new coaches.
“We’re excited. I mean, it’s great to get everybody here to kind of feel normal again as a basketball program,” said Pitino. “It feels like campus is kind of reopening a little bit, as well as the town.”
Pitino, who noted recently that the summer will be huge for building a foundation for his new program, said there won’t be as much emphasis this month on learning a playbook, but more on just getting acquainted with one another and conditioned so that the team can really get going later in the summer.
“We want to establish a culture, but not a lot of these guys know each other,” Pitino said. “Normally, there’s recruiting visits, where you get to know each other over a 48-hour visit. They didn’t have that.”
As of Wednesday, players have worked out in the weight room with new strength coach Matthew Flores and are allowed to shoot around in the gym, but no formal on-court practices or instruction was planned before Thursday. The first practices media will be allowed to watch will be next week.
WHO ISN’T HERE: Entering the week, the Lobos appeared to be two over the NCAA-allowed scholarship limit of 13 for the coming season with what was supposed to be nine newcomers and six returning players from last year’s team.
Of those nine newcomers, four are not on campus, and one – 6-foot-7 prep signee Jamel King from Alabama who played this past season at Bella Vista Prep in Scottsdale, Ariz. – will not be joining the Lobos at all.
King has been released from the national letter of intent he signed with UNM in November under previous coach Paul Weir. The Journal reached out to King for comment with no luck, though a coach affiliated with his club team in Arizona posted on Twitter on Wednesday his displeasure with UNM signing too many players, then essentially cutting one of them before later deleting his tweet.
Pitino declined to elaborate on Wednesday about specifics about King not becoming a Lobo, but said, “We wish him nothing but the best of luck moving forward.”
Other players not in Albuquerque yet are newcomers Jamal Mashburn Jr., the highly touted guard who transferred to UNM from Minnesota where he played for Pitino last season, and two of the Lobos’ 6-foot-11 prep signees: Sebastian Forsling of Sweden and Birima Seck from Senegal, who played this past season at Dream City Christian prep school in Arizona.
All three, Pitino said, are still expected to join the Lobos later this summer but “are finishing up some academic stuff” first.
As for King moving on and the Lobos oversigning players, it is nothing new at UNM or around college basketball. Among notable examples are UNM going over the limit in June 2014 when it signed transfer forward Tim Williams, who went on to be an All-Mountain West Conference player under Craig Neal. There was a weekend in April 2018 when the Lobos signed three players – junior college transfers Keith McGee and Karim Ezzeddine and prep wing Tavian Percy – who put that roster over the allowable limit under Paul Weir before other players had to transfer.
Mountain West team Nevada earlier this year had two more players than scholarships available under former Lobos coach Steve Alford, but also had oversigned by at least two players in a season under previous head coach Eric Musselman.
Pitino said oversigning isn’t something he recalls ever doing at Minnesota, but it is a sign of a new era of basketball that currently has more than 1,600 kids in the NCAA transfer portal ahead of the coming season. That leaves teams in a state of never-ending recruiting in case players they didn’t ask to leave decide to transfer, sometimes leading to having too many committed players.
“I just think the volatility through the transfer portal, through COVID, through everything, there’s just so much uncertainty,” said Pitino.
“Hopefully, as the train kind of gets back on the tracks in college basketball, we can get a little bit more certainty, but you know, the transfer portal is the highest it’s ever been. And so every decision that we make in recruiting and everything is what we believe is the best for New Mexico. … It’s not something that we want to do all the time, by any means.”
He also noted that the reasons for some player decisions to leave or not join a program sometimes “is not always out there all the time.”