In order to take the next step, the University of New Mexico men’s basketball team has to evolve from a small, fast-paced, guard-oriented team that only can win games with scores in the 80s and 90s, and instead be a team that can grind out ugly, low-scoring games against big, physical teams. That’s something they quite frankly had no chance to accomplish last season, when they went 13-19 overall and 5-12 in the Mountain West.
Wednesday, at the first open media practice of the preseason – a season that still doesn’t actually begin for six weeks with the Nov. 7 opener in the Pit – the shift toward the new-look, more physical Lobos was on full display.
And while everyone on the roster is said to be a bit stronger and more ready for the physicality needed this season, there’s no mistaking the makeover is still headlined by the addition of 6-foot-8 transfers Morris Udeze from Wichita State and Josiah Allick from the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
“I mean, they’re monsters down there,” said Jamal Mashburn, the junior guard who is the team’s returning leading scorer and one of two returning all-Mountain West players.
“I mean, we can throw the ball down there and (they’re) gonna make something happen. They’re gonna get fouled or it’s gonna be a bucket. That changes a whole lot for our team in a positive way – defensively and offensively. … They take up so much space that it opens up stuff for the guards. It’s gonna make us so much better.”
Second-year coach Richard Pitino says he believes the Lobos can still be a high-level offensive team. But he said the physicality added in the offseason – with existing players in the weight room plus the additions of Udeze and Allick – was vital to make a more complete team.
“It’s everything. That’s what San Diego State has. It’s what Boise, who won last year – they have it. They’ve got size. They’ve got physicality,” Pitino said. He joked that he told Boise State coach Leon Rice that the Jan. 22 game in which his Broncos beat San Diego State 42-37 on national television “should not have been on TV. … That was horrendous.”
“But they got the win. That’s what great teams do. They could win anyway. We couldn’t do that last year. We could win going up and down, maybe win in the 90s and high 80s. We could not win in a rock fight. Physicality is it. You’ll see a much bigger, stronger, tougher team than last year, for sure.”
HE SAID IT: Mashburn (18.2 points per game) and fellow returning all-Mountain West guard Jaelen House (16.9 points per game) combined for about 47 percent of UNM’s scoring last season, and they now enter the season with lofty expectations to be what is considered one of the best back courts in the conference, if not all of college basketball.
Both have NBA bloodlines that were part of their intense offseason training – Mashburn in Florida, House in Arizona.
With that as the backdrop, Mashburn was asked Wednesday, “What’s the next step for this back court?”
“Winning. Just winning,” Mashburn sad. “I think we’ve shown that it’s hard to stay in front of us, you know? We can put the ball in the basket. But now, can we equivalate that to winning?”
INJURIES: When the calendar still shows September, injuries or a couple missed practices aren’t exactly areas for huge concern. Erring on the side of caution is much easier today than once the games begin.
As such, there were three missing or limited missing pieces to the Lobo puzzle at Wednesday’s open media practice: House, sophomore center Sebastian Forsling and senior wing Emmanuel Kuac.
On House, Pitino said he’s “nursing a little bit of a shoulder deal that we don’t think is a big deal. So he’ll probably be back by the end of the week.”
Pitino said Forsling is “sick, nothing serious.”
As for Kuac, who is still recovering from a broken leg suffered in a game in January in the Pit, he was at Wednesday’s practice, but is still being held out of contact drills. Pitino noted Kuac is “doing a lot of non-contact, and he looks great.”
Again noting September practices aren’t exactly approached with the same urgency as ones will be later in terms of players practicing with what might otherwise be injuries they could practice with, Pitino did acknowledge he looks forward to having everyone available soon.
“We have not had a lot of practices where we’ve had a full slate of guys, which sometimes isn’t a bad thing because some guys who don’t get a lot of reps can get more reps,” Pitino said. “But it’ll be fun to get everybody healthy and ready to go.”