Bigger, stronger Lobos are determined not to be bullied on the beach - Albuquerque Journal

Bigger, stronger Lobos are determined not to be bullied on the beach

UNM’s Morris Udeze ,center is defended by Oral Roberts’ Patrick Mwamba , left and Connor Vanover Monday at the Pit. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

K.J. Jenkins knows first-hand how difficult the task Saturday night in San Diego is going to be.

But the senior co-captain isn’t about to let his New Mexico Lobo basketball men lose the game before they ever even step on the airplane to face the Mountain West leading, 23rd-ranked San Diego State Aztecs.

When he talked to media Thursday morning, the questions about how big and physically imposing Aztecs are came fast and furious, but it didn’t take him long to put things into the proper perspective.

“They’re a physical team,” Jenkins said, with a bit of a what-did-you-expect grin, “but they’re not going to be out there trying to eat us. This is basketball.

“We just have to embrace the physicality. Go hoop. Go be us. Us is good enough to get that dub.”

Make no mistake, Jenkins has a ton of respect for the Aztecs, and he knows full well what the stakes are when the Lobos (15-2, 2-2 Mountain West) tip off their nationally televised showdown with the Aztecs (13-3, 4-0). The 6-foot-2 guard was there a year ago. His 16 points off the bench accounted for more than one-third of his team’s scoring, and his career-high nine rebounds were three more than any other Lobo in a 72-47 beat-down on Montezuma Mesa that serves as the lowest UNM point total in the Pitino era.

 

In fact, Jenkins in the moments after that Jan. 31, 2022, game seemed to articulate pretty clearly to the Journal the significance of what happened that day to a Lobos program in the first season of a rather major rebuild and playing without three centers – one suspended just prior to the season, one who transferred 11 games into it, and a third who broke his leg earlier in the month.

“That’s just a really good look at what a championship-caliber team really looks like – the physicality, the discipline, the chemistry,” Jenkins said then. “This is where we’re trying to get to. So, it’s time in the weight room we’ve got to spend, just eating and doing everything right (and watching) everything that goes into our bodies. Staying disciplined down the road and trusting the process.”

That process included the offseason landing of two transfer power forwards – 6-foot-8, 240-pound Morris Udeze and 6-8, 235-pound Josiah Allick – who have set the tone for a new attitude around the program and a much improved defense. Yes, the offense is still far ahead of the defense, but the defensive efficiency last season ranked 243rd in the nation . It’s now 93rd out of 363 Division I teams.

The duo rank first and second in the Mountain West in rebounding (Allick 8.0, Udeze 7.9), Udeze ranks fifth in scoring (16.0) and second in field goal percentage (60.0%). Both are coming off double-doubles in Monday’s UNM win over Oral Roberts, during which Allick stuffed the stat sheet (15 points, 13 rebounds, four assists) and moved Pitino to call him one of the most underrated players he’s ever coached.

But while the Lobos have changed – they certainly hope for the better in the 50th game in the Pitino era, which followed a 2020-21 season in which the Lobos finished with only four Division I wins and rated 303rd in the NCAA’s NET rankings – the Aztecs certainly have not.

That is the problem for the Lobos and the rest of the Mountain West.

“San Diego State is a terrific team. It’s a culture that’s been intact for the last 20 some years, obviously with what coach (Steve) Fisher built, and then to be able to keep some continuity and some stability (when coach Brian Dutcher took over) is huge,” Pitino said. “So, that’s what we’re fighting against. They’re strong, they’re physical, they’re tough, they’re old. And we’ve got to be prepared for just an absolute physical bloodbath with every little thing that we do, because they do it to everybody. So, a lot of respect for them. And know it’s going to be a great challenge.”

INJURY UPDATE: The Lobos remain down four scholarship players – one transfer, two injured and out for season and a fourth is using a redshirt season as a freshman – but hope two other injured players are ready Saturday.

Jenkins missed the Jan. 3 loss at Fresno State with a sprained ankle that continues to bother him, though he played the past two games. Junior wing Javonte Johnson, who missed Monday’s start (the first time in 17 games the Lobos changed their starting lineup) with an elbow injury, has participated in noncontact drills this week.

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