Remember these guys?
Richard Pitino sure hopes so.
The UNM Lobos — the same ones that improved to 3-0 with a road pounding of SMU in Dallas on Nov. 15 and had a desperate fanbase buzzing again — open the three-day, four-team Lobo Classic on Friday afternoon and seem to be a team that hasn’t played in ages.
Aside from the literal layoff of 10 days since they last played — and 14 days since last playing in the Pit — the Lobo men’s basketball team, like everyone else, has had to try and digest the realities of life outside of basketball. The rivalry game they had prepared to play last weekend in front of a near sold-out Pit was abruptly called off due to a campus shooting that left one of their UNM classmates dead and a New Mexico State Aggies player hospitalized.
“The recent events, just from our basketball program standpoint, obviously, we had some great momentum, and it’s changed a little bit,” Pitino said.
The second year coach did not shy away from expressing his thoughts, and certainly sympathies, about the shooting at a Wednesday news conference. But, as it strictly pertains to basketball, he acknowledged missing the NMSU game presents a challenge to the team, and program at large that was about to have a showcase game in front of the type of home crowd Pitino has been working to try and get back in the Pit for more than a year.
“There was pretty good apathy when we took the job. And we weren’t very good. And we got to a point in our fourth game (this season) where we were selling the building out,” Pitino said. “So, that part of it, I’m proud of our guys for being able to do that. And that’s when I talked about how that momentum goes away a little bit (with the missed game). Now, hopefully, we have the team that can bring it back. We’ve got great opportunities.”
While most have played four, five or even six games by now, the Lobos are, in fact, among the final 35 (of 363) Division I programs without a loss through Thursday evening. And UNM has shown that it can play fast, play through its guards, play through its frontcourt and in the SMU victory, showed it can, at its best, even mix in some rather stifling defense at times, too.
Starting with Jacksonville State on Friday and continuing with North Dakota State on Saturday and Northern Colorado on Sunday, the return of the Lobo Classic for the first time since 1999, presents the Lobos a unique challenge.
“We haven’t played in a while, you know?” Pitino said. “My concern is whenever you have those long breaks, did you get out of rhythm and did you get out of game shape. So a lot of challenges. Three games in a row, a lot of challenges.”
ALLEN-TOVAR: As first reported by the Journal on Tuesday, senior forward Jay Allen-Tovar has left the Lobos and is in the NCAA transfer portal, seeking to play out his final season of college eligibility elsewhere.
Pitino said the decision came last week after the SMU win.
“I think Jay is a great kid,” Pitino said. “I think he’s got a lot of potential. He’s gotten better. So hopefully we can find him a good spot.”
UNM loses depth in the frontcourt as the high-flying 6-foot-9 forward averaged 15.2 minutes per game this season and led the team last season in blocks and rebounds. Birima Seck, a 6-11 sophomore, will see more minutes, but the team may also go small more now, allowing reserve guards K.J. Jenkins and Donovan Dent to get more minutes with Javonte Johnson sliding from the “3” to the “4” at times.. That would allow Jenkins and Dent to get more run with scoring leaders Jaelen House and Jamal Mashburn Jr. on the court, still getting their 30-plus minutes per game.
“I think Birima gets the opportunity right away,” said Pitino. “I think Eman (senior wing Emmanuel Kuac, still working his way back into game shape after a broken leg in January) — he’s feeling better, but I don’t think he’s still ready to go like that. … And then we got to look at Javonte (Johnson). Maybe we look at Quinton (Webb, a freshman who has yet to play this season) playing small a little bit more. We’ve been at our best — it’s only been three games — when we’ve been big.”
FOOD DRIVE: There are $10 tickets available to games in the Lobo Classic with a donation of two non-perishable food items that will be delivered to the on-campus Lobo Food Pantry.
LOBO CLASSIC SCHEDULE
All games in the Pit
• Jacksonville State at UNM, 5 p.m., 610 AM/95.9 FM, TheMW.com/watch (stream)
• North Dakota State vs. Northern Colorado, 7:30 p.m.
• North Dakota State at UNM, 5 p.m., 770 AM/96.3 FM, TheMW.com/watch (stream)
• Jacksonville State vs. Northern Colorado, 7:30 p.m.
• Jacksonville State vs. North Dakota State, 3 p.m.
• Northern Colorado at UNM, 5:30 p.m., 770 AM/96.3 FM, TheMW.com/watch (stream)
LOBO CLASSIC TEAM CAPSULES
New Mexico Lobos
Conference: Mountain West
Coach: Richard Pitino (175-156 11th season overall; 16-19 2nd season at UNM)
Scoring: 84.3 ppg
Points allowed: 72.7 ppg
• Scoring – Jaelen House (20.7)
• Rebounding – Josiah Allick (8.7)
• Assists – House (6.3)
Number to know: 2.04 — UNM’s 2.04 assist to turnover ratio ranks 3rd in the country out of 363 Division I programs
Jacksonville State Gamecocks
Conference: Atlantic Sun
Coach: Ray Harper (552-205 24th season overall; 121-78 7th season at JSU)
Scoring: 77.8 ppg
Points allowed: 68.0 ppg
• Scoring – Skyelar Potter (13.8)
• Rebounding – Juwan Perdue (7.0)
• Assists – Peyton Daniels (5.0)
Number to know: 49.6% — Nearly half (49.6%) of the points JSU allows come off 3-pointers rather than 2-point shots or free throws. That 49.6% clip is second highest in the country against Division I foes, though one game accounts for most of that (the Gamecocks allowed Alabama to hit 21 3-pointers on Nov. 18).
Northern Colorado Bears
Conference: Big Sky
Coach: Steve Smiley (34-31 3rd season at UNC and overall)
Scoring: 63.2 ppg
Points allowed: 81.0 ppg
• Scoring – Dalton Knecht (16.0)
• Rebounding – Dalton Knecht (6.6)
• Assists – Matt Johnson II (4.2)
Number to know: 47.4% — In their Division I games, the Bears get 47.4% of their points from 3-pointers. That’s the 4th highest percent of a team’s scoring coming from 3-pointers in the country.
North Dakota State Bison
Conference: Summit League
Coach: Dave Richman (160-101 9th season at NDSU and overall)
Scoring: 70.8 ppg
Points allowed: 81.0 ppg
• Scoring – Andrew Morgan (13.2)
• Rebounding – Andrew Morgan (8.2)
• Assists – Luke Yoder (2.6)
Number to know: 9.6 — The Bison are forcing just 9.6 turnovers per game, which ranks 342nd in the country. In Division I-only games, their defensive turnover rate of just 10.2% is last among 363 Division I teams, per KenPom.com.