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Lobos begin putting the Pitino imprint on program

In a June practice anywhere across the college basketball landscape, there is plenty to work on.

There’s rust to shake off, maybe some extra pounds to shed and, in the case of the UNM Lobos, with an almost entirely new coaching staff and eight new players expected to join the team, there is a lot of new terminology to learn and old habits to break, especially for guys transferring from other programs.

Tuesday, UNM held its first open media practice in more than a year. Due to the state’s COVID-19 restrictions, there hadn’t been a full media availability at a Lobo men’s basketball practice since February 2020.

And one rather prominent Lobo newcomer showed just how hard breaking habits from the old program can be. New head coach Richard Pitino on Tuesday yelled at the “cherry” team during a scrimmage at Tuesday’s practice by calling them “maroon,” one of the two colors of the Minnesota Golden Gophers, the team he coached the past eight years.

The misstep was certainly forgiveable for June.

Of much greater interest to the local media group that assembled Tuesday were the five newcomers (of eight expected to join the team this summer) who were making their first public appearance in CHERRY and silver – getting to know their new teammates, new coaches and surroundings. For a roster that largely has never played together, the summer is hardly about polishing a finished product and much more about taking the first steps toward a seasonlong journey.

“With a new team, it’s really important to jell – get that chemistry, and that’s what this (summer) is all about,” said K.J. Jenkins, a 6-foot-2 sharpshooting junior college transfer from Kilgore College in Texas who shot better than 46% from 3-point range this past season.

“… Coach Pitino has been (setting) the standard to get better every day. That’s all it’s been about. We’re not really focusing on trying to win a championship in one day. We’re taking it day by day.”

The practice included some defensive drills early – lots of emphasis on closing out on 3-point shooters – and extensive shooting drills for a team that is expected to prioritize outside shooting after the 2020-21 Lobos posted the fourth-worst team 3-point percentage (27.5%) out of 340 Division I teams in the country.

The session closed with a scrimmage that saw a good mix of returning Lobos – notably Emmanuel Kuac, Javonte Johnson and Jeremiah Francis – performing well while some of the newcomers showed why they are so highly regarded, including the point guard capabilities of lightning-quick 6-foot-1 Arizona State transfer Jaelen House and the versatility of 6-10 Kansas transfer big man Gethro Muscadin.

WHO DIDN’T PRACTICE: As mentioned above, Jenkins did not practice with a foot issue that was of little concern to Pitino and Jenkins, who wasn’t walking with a limp and didn’t even mention it when he spoke to a media scrum before practice started.

The 6-2 guard spent much of the practice helping with drills like a manager or assistant coach or shooting on a side basket with frequent discussions with trainer Gilchrist Schmidt.

The other Lobos not practicing on Tuesday were the three who are not yet in Albuquerque for summer classes, as Pitino first announced last week: Minnesota transfer guard Jamal Mashburn Jr. and a pair of prep 6-foot-11 centers in Sebastian Forsling from Sweden and Birima Seck from Senegal, who played this past season at Dream City Christian School in Glendale, Arizona.

All three, Pitino said, are expected here for July’s second summer session of classes.

TRANSFER PORTAL: West Mesa High School graduate Eloy Medina on Tuesday announced he’d be entering it. The 6-3 walk-on freshman this past season played in five games for a total of 15 minutes, hitting two of seven shots attempted, all from beyond the 3-point line.

He wrote of the transfer on his Twitter page: “I have decided to enter my name in the Transfer Portal to explore more options and take a different route. Appreciate lobo nation, love.”

SCHOLARSHIP COUNT: UNM remains at 14 scholarships committed for the coming season, one above the NCAA limit of 13. The team has until the fall semester to get to 13.

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