Six weeks ago, the Lobos were a different team.
Gethro Muscadin was the team’s 6-foot-10 starting center and 6-7 Emmanuel Kuac, who would later become UNM’s starting center before breaking his leg, was just getting cleared to play after an unrelated early-season injury.
The Lobos weren’t a good defensive team, then, but they weren’t as bad as they’ve become after those two players left an already undermanned frontcourt without many options remaining.
But offensively, the team was also doing something then that it seems to have abandoned – and maybe not entirely because of the shift in roster dynamics in the frontcourt.
In the Dec. 18 Journal, a story published on the cover of the sports section with the headline: “Free throws are coming fast for Lobo basketball” with a subhead that read “One point at a time is a big part of UNM offense.” In that article, it was noted at that point – about five weeks into the 2021-22 season – the Lobos led the nation in free throws made (there are 358 Division I men’s basketball teams) and were second in free throws attempted.
“That is 100% a core belief of mine is to get to the free throw line,” said Pitino. “My good teams at Minnesota have been that way. My team at FIU was that way. We’ve got good guards that I think can go by you, but we want to put pressure on you to get to your bench (because of starters getting in foul trouble).”
The Lobos were getting 23.6% of their points per game at the free throw line at that point, a big key for a team that knows it has to outscore opponents rather than count on being able to stop them on defense with consistency.
The Lobos’ free throw line dominance has plummeted, of late.
Through seven Mountain West games, the Lobos have scored 69 of their 501 points on free throws, which accounts for a mere 13.8% (the national average for percentage of points a team scores at the line is 17.7%).
The Lobos went from a national leader to well, well below the national average in a hurry.
And Pitino said it can’t be blamed on referees or entirely on personnel changes in the front court.
“We don’t have to change anything,” Pitino told the Journal in a telephone interview after Saturday’s loss at Wyoming. “It’s just a matter of continuing to attack and to play our game.”
But the Lobos have seemed to back off lately on the attacking while increasing the dependency on 3-point shooting. UNM hit double-digit 3-pointers in just two of their first 14 games. They’ve hit 10 or more 3-pointers in four of their past six games.
Not surprisingly, their ability to get foul calls and get to the free throw line has also changed.
UNM hit just 16 free throws and attempted just 29 in a three-game stretch Jan. 15-22. Quite the shift for a team that once embraced getting to the line so much it hit 35-of-42 free throws in one game alone (Nov. 30 at New Mexico State).
That three-game stretch with limited free throws included losses by eight, six and two points to the teams currently sitting at Nos. 1, 2, and 3 in the MWC standings.
In Tuesday’s 65-60 loss to Fresno State, UNM hit 15 of 17 free throws. But the Bulldogs were whistled for their sixth foul of the second half with 9:32 remaining in the game, meaning any foul from that point on would put UNM in the bonus and send them to the free throw line.
Instead, UNM drew only two more fouls, and of its last 13 shots, 11 were charted as jump shots.
“You’ve got to understand what time frame we’re in,” said guard K.J. Jenkins. “We were in the bonus, right? And we’re a very good free throw shooting team. We made a lot of free throws tonight, (but) we could have got a lot more if we got down in the paint to the rim. I think that’s what hurt us a lot down the stretch. We were getting too 3-happy instead of getting to the free throw line.”