Rick Pitino knew he couldn’t press Jaelen House.
But, he’s Rick Pitino. He’s gonna press.
Sure enough, this past Sunday in the Pit when the Hall of Fame coach sent his Iona Gaels guards – considered one of the better backcourts on the East Coast – to go press, House made them pay.
The second-year, 6-foot UNM point guard showed the Gaels what he’s been showing everyone else since he arrived in Albuquerque a year and a half ago and was given a green light by Richard Pitino to show off his unique skill set in a way he couldn’t at Arizona State. Aside from his high-energy, pesky defense, House has been a one-man press breaker, quick as a hiccup in high tops to go along with the ball control and passing ability to not only break the press, but then turn it into quick offense at the other end.
“House is a very unique guard,” Rick Pitino said. “He can dominate. Even when we had two guys on him, he still got the ball in bounds and went by us. …
“We wear out 98% of point guards. That guy’s the Energizer Bunny. You can’t wear him out.”
And at no point did Rick Pitino ever get a hint that House was, in fact, getting tired in Sunday’s 82-74 Lobos victory.
“He doesn’t,” Rick Pitino said. “I’ve watched him enough. He doesn’t. You just hope it hurts his shot.”
There’s plenty of praise to be heaped upon steady scorer and team co-captain Jamal Mashburn Jr.. And there’s no question a new identity of toughness and improved defense was set in place because of the additions of power forward transfers Morris Udeze and Josiah Allick.
But the improvement from last season to this from House, who has looked the part on both ends of the floor of a Mountain West Player of the Year candidate, might just be the single biggest reason why the 12-0 Lobos just completed nonconference play as one of three Division I teams (out of 363) that has still not lost a game.
“He’s been really good for 12 games. He was phenomenal versus Iona when I rewatched it (on the game film),” said UNM coach Richard Pitino, who has constantly coached House as hard as any Lobo. The UNM coach tries to help the point guard strike the right balance between talkative, flamboyant star and the steady, floor leader the team needs him to be.
“He’s a very unique one. He’s a great kid,” Richard Pitino added. “He loves all that stuff. And that’s not a bad thing. I joked with him. I said, ‘How’d you feel when my dad said all those good things about you? Did it feel great?’ And he was like, ‘Oh, yeah.’ But at the end of the day, I’m trying to get him … to showcase himself for the next level and play with enthusiasm, play with energy, but keep fueling others. And I think he’s had great maturity in a lot of these games.”
House certainly showed flashes of offensive greatness a season ago. But this season, as his minutes have decreased between three and four minutes a game thanks in large part to the addition of steady freshman point guard Donovan Dent, House actually has become far more dangerous on both ends of the court.
His Mountain West Conference leading 2.7 steals per game is up over the 2.2 league-leading total he had last season when he was an All-Conference third-team selection.
His steal rate of 5.31% is tops in the league and 14th nationally. Heck, with his in-your-face defense, and even as the shortest player on the court most games, House is ranked 15th in the conference in blocked shots (0.75) while committing just under 2.1 fouls per game.
On offense, his points are down (16.9 per game to 16.4), but just about every other stat has improved: Assists are up from 4.5 to a league-best 5.3; turnovers have dropped from 3.39 to 2.25; 3-point shooting is up from t 31.8% to a scorching 45.8% this season.
And opposing defenders most nights simply can’t handle his speed. House’s 6.8 fouls drawn per 40 minutes is second best in the MWC and 25th best nationally, leading to a league-high 5.1 made free throws per game.
“I believe that if you’re going to be a championship team in your league, a contender in the NCAA Tournament, the guards have to be great free throw shooters. And House is that,” said Rick Pitino on Sunday. “… That’s a big weapon to have, as well as all the other great things he does. He’s fun to watch. He has a fifth year (of eligibility next season), and I would offer him two of my scholarships.”
UP NEXT: Colorado State at UNM, 7 p.m., Wednesday, CBS Sports Network, 770 AM/96.3 FM