Rivalry Part II: Lobos want to play in a hurry - Albuquerque Journal

Rivalry Part II: Lobos want to play in a hurry

NMSU’s Sir’Jabari Rice (left) battles UNM’s Jaelen House for a loose ball last Tuesday at the Pan Am Center, a game won by the Lobos in a contrast of styles. The two teams play again Monday at the Pit. (Mike Sandoval for the Albuquerque Journal)

And when it comes to the basketball DNA of how coach Chris Jans’ New Mexico State Aggies have played in his past four seasons running the Aggies vs. how the new-look New Mexico Lobos clearly are trying to play in the first season under coach Richard Pitino, the in-state rivals have two pretty distinctly different approaches.

As was shown in Tuesday’s 101-94 Lobos win in Las Cruces in part 1 of this season’s two-part renewed rivalry series, UNM has a fast, guard-dominated roster that, led by 6-foot speedster Jaelen House, is at its best when it’s playing in a high-possession game, shooting early in the shot clock.

As of Saturday afternoon, the Lobos ranked No. 4 out of 358 Division I teams in adjusted tempo, averaging 74.2 possession per game (the national average is 68.5, per KenPom.com).

The Aggies, a team without a small point guard fast enough to consistently stay in front of House one-on-one, entered Tuesday’s game ranked 317th in tempo.

Instead of those two contrasting styles meeting somewhere in the middle, House (31 points, five assists, one turnover) dictated a high-tempo, 80-possession game Tuesday in which the Lobos didn’t trail for the final 26 minutes.

Nonetheless, that style of play comes with some obvious risks for the Lobos.

“Am I excited we scored 101 points? Sure,” Pitino said. “But we gave up 94. So I think both coaches understand that our defense has got to get significantly better.”

It’s a similar sentiment he gave before the game when he hinted the sweet spot for the team might actually be to slow it down a bit. Instead, the Lobos played their fastest game of the season.

“Do I want to play as fast as we’re playing? Probably not,” Pitino said Monday, on the eve of the rivalry game. “Do I want to play slow? No. So there’s probably an in-between this whole thing.

“You’re going to be in trouble if you’re playing that fast, and you have that many possessions and you don’t rebound and you don’t defend. You’re going to be on the losing end.”

The Lobos managed to outrebound NMSU on Tuesday 39-35, and both teams had matching 29-of-62 (46.8%) shooting performances. The difference came at the line, where UNM hit 35-of-42 free throws to NMSU’s 27-of-35 in a game with 51 fouls called, including four technicals.

And, it’s fair to point out high-foul games with plenty of trips to the free throw line, while seemingly slowing the game down for fans, actually often increase the number of possessions in a game, which is how “tempo” statistics area determined.

So what can one take from Tuesday’s game and how it was played?

For the Lobos, it’s clear how they want to play:

• UNM’s slowest-played, lowest possession game of the season: 65 possessions in a 73-58 loss to Towson on Nov. 26 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

• UNM’s fastest-played, highest-possession game of the season: 80 possessions at New Mexico State on Tuesday.

Pitino’s past has shown a wide variance in tempo with his Minnesota teams ranging from 47th in in pace of play to 257th. His 2017, Big Ten Coach of the Year and NCAA Tournament No. 5-seeded Gophers played at the 98th fastest pace, but also had a defense that made teams work for shots. (Opponents had an average possession length ranked 236th.)

As for Jans, his Aggies rank 290th in tempo (that jumped significantly after the UNM game), similar to each year he’s been at NMSU: 325th (2020-21), 343rd (19-20), 269th (18-19) and 165th (17-18).

In his return to the bench Friday at UTEP after a two-game absence due to COVID protocols that included the UNM loss, the Aggies returned to their comfort zone with a season-low 64-possession game.

The result? NMSU beat the Miners on the road, 72-69.

Jordan Sperber, a college basketball analyst who has worked in the past at both New Mexico State and Nevada, broke down some early season pace of play changes for teams in his HoopVision newsletter this week titled “The Fast Getting Furious”.

Sperber, who each spring notes how many newly hired coaches promise fast play in introductory press conferences, asked this week: “Which coaches have executed on that promise during the first month of the season?”

UNM is one of 10 teams with the biggest jump in how fast they’re playing offensively this season compared to 2020-21. Of those 10 teams, just four — UNM, Central Florida, Wake Forrest and Kansas State — have actually produced better offensive ratings as a result.

Now, for Pitino, the work is focused on keeping the offense playing fast and free without it continuing to cost the Lobos in other areas.

“Obviously, our offense is way ahead of our defense,” he said on Friday.

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