For the Lobos to pull off an upset on the Mesa on Saturday night, it’ll likely have to be an inside job.
A general inability to find any offensive success inside the arc a season ago led to four UNM starters – yes, four starters – being held to 3 or fewer points when the Lobos lost by 25 points in San Diego last January. This go ‘round the Lobos (15-2, 2-2 Mountain West) may find their best opportunity to generate that offense now is by beating the No. 23 San Diego State Aztecs (13-3, 4-0) in the paint and at the rim.
And the primary weapons in the Lobos arsenal to get that done are their two transfer power forwards, Morris Udeze and Josiah Allick.
“We always want to go to those guys. It’s a matter of finding the maturity offensively to be able to look down there more,” UNM coach Richard Pitino said.
One year ago, a Lobos team that was down three centers when playing in San Diego shot just 30.0% (9-of-30) on 2-point shots. This season the Lobos are shooting 53.0% on 2-point shots in Division I games, which ranks 70th in the country (the national average among 363 teams is 49.8%). That has led to UNM scoring 56.4% of its points on 2-point shots (51st in the country).
The problem is, UNM has seen its 2-point field goal percentage drop to 47.6% over four league games, ranking 11th out of 11 in Mountain West play. Getting back to “where our bread is buttered”, as Pitino often refers to it, and scoring inside is not only essential for UNM’s offense to return to form, but this season seems to be a truly rare occasion where SDSU might just oblige.
While the Aztecs are still a team that hangs its hat on defense, and former MWC Defensive Player of the Year Nathan Mensah is still anchoring the defense and protecting the rim, the statistics show SDSU is having one of its worst seasons defending 2-point shots in more than a decade.
Consider this. In the previous 13 seasons, the Aztecs never ranked lower than 83rd in the nation in 2-point FG% defense and in 10 of those 13 seasons, they ranked in the top 40. Last season, SDSU ranked 7th nationally, allowing teams a mere 43.5% shooting inside the arc.
So far this season, teams are shooting 50.7% on 2s against SDSU, ranking the usually stingy Aztecs 207th – 200 spots lower than last season – in 2-point FG% defense.
Senior guard K.J. Jenkins said Thursday that the Lobos at their best can compete with the Aztecs. And to get back to their “best” on offense, he said it’s all about ball movement without allowing a team to take away the inside threat, as SDSU did a season ago.
“I think most importantly, it’s really about getting the ball, for the big men, inside for a paint touch at least every possession,” Jenkins said.
“And then when we come into our huddles, understanding that we need to talk to each other. If you feel like you’re not getting the ball, say something. If you feel like you need touches just to get in rhythm, say something. … Just knowing that getting the ball side to side gives everybody energy. Coach preaches that the ball gives energy and I’m a firm believer in that.”
FIRST 50: Saturday will be the 50th game in the Richard Pitino era at UNM. After taking over the 2020-21 team that had six wins (just four vs. Division I teams) and finished 294th in the KenPom.com rankings, the Lobos have gone 28-21 (13-19 last season, 15-2 this season) under Pitino.
UNM’s jump from 294 in KenPom at the end of the 2020-21 season to Friday’s ranking of 64 is the largest jump in KenPom in that span, and three of the top five jumps in Division I are Mountain West teams:
+230 – UNM (294/64)
+201 – San Jose State (333/132
+182 – Troy (305/123)
+181 – Air Force (332/151)
+177 – Middle Tennessee (306/129)
SHORT BENCH: The Lobos are down to nine scholarship players. The four who are no longer available this season are:
• G/F Emmanuel Kuac, 6-7, Sr. — torn patellar tendon
• G Braden Appelhans, 6-7, Fr. — torn ligament, thumb
• F Jay Allen-Tovar, 6-9, Sr. — Transferred after 3 games
• G Quinton Webb, 6-6, Fr. — redshirting
Pitino said this week that while he’s been using a primary rotation of just about seven players most of the season, that’s not necessarily by preference.
“Eight or nine would be great,” Pitino said.