One of the major statistics one could look at as to why the UNM Lobos have jumped from a bottom-of-the-standings, 13-win team a season ago to a 19-win (and counting) team this season that finds itself still in Mountain West title and NCAA Tournament conversations has been a rather drastic jump on defense.
While that side of the ball is still behind — some nights rather significantly so — the Lobos’ offense, there’s no denying that finishing the 2021-22 season ranked 243rd in defensive efficiency and currently sitting at 70th (out of 363 Division I teams) in defensive efficiency has been a big part of that jump.
And while added size in the post and making it tougher on teams to score inside might be a part of the equation, as of Tuesday, UNM actually ranked 35th nationally and third in the Mountain West in 3-point percentage defense, holding opponents to 30.1% shooting from beyond the arc.
Not a bad feather in the cap as the Lobos (19-3, 6-3 Mountain West) head to frigid Logan, Utah, on Wednesday night to take on a Utah State Aggies (17-5, 6-3) team that leads the nation in 3-point shooting.
“They have a very good understanding of how to move the basketball,” UNM Lobos coach Richard Pitino said of the Aggies’ offense. “They get a high number of assists. They’ve got good length that can shoot over you. So, I mean, one through four, they shoot the basketball.”
But the Lobos, who have been solid against the 3 most of the season, have been particularly good of late.
UNM is holding league opponents through nine conference games to just 28.2% 3-point shooting. And in the previous six games, including one nonconference opponent in that stretch, they’ve held teams under their season average from deep and even had a five-game stretch of holding opponents under 25% shooting on 3s.
Here’s a snapshot of the past six Lobo opponents and their 3-point shooting:
• Oral Roberts: Season 38.1% — vs. UNM 25.0% (9-36)
• San Diego State: Season 36.5% — vs. UNM 25.0% (6-24)
• San Jose State: Season 33.3% — vs. UNM 18.8% (6-23)
• Boise State: Season 37.6% — vs. UNM 20.8% (5-24)
• Nevada: Season 34.1% — vs. UNM 20.8% (5-24)
• Air Force: Season 35.5% — vs. UNM 34.6% (9-26)
It’s a trend the Lobos obviously hope can continue, but trying to explain why, exactly, it’s been happening isn’t all that easy.
Even for their coach.
“I have, seriously, no idea why we’ve been good against the 3 — and I said that today in a staff meeting,” Pitino said earlier this week. “I mean, we put an emphasis on it. But it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense because we’re not real big on the perimeter (UNM starts a 6-foot point guard and a 6-2 shooting guard with two 6-2 guards as the top players coming in off the bench).
“Now, we’ve gotten better at getting quick to the ball and maybe not being in rotations as much (that tends to leave shooters open), so we certainly put an emphasis on it and our guys have gotten better at it, but I don’t know if it’s one specific thing or not, but we’ll keep certainly emphasizing to get them off the 3 point line but Utah State’s gonna shoot a bunch of them.”
As for what that means vs. Utah State, the Lobos know plenty of 3s are going to be shot, and probably plenty will fall. So, the emphasis is not letting it get out of hand, but also addressing the other things that come along with playing a 3-point-heavy shooting team.
For Josiah Allick, who is No. 2 in the Mountain West this season in rebounding (8.3 per game) behind teammate Morris Udeze (8.5), he knows rebounding against a team that shoots so many 3-pointers presents a unique challenge because of the high-number of long rebounds that might sail over an otherwise well-positioned rebounder.
“It puts a lot more responsibility on the guards because, just because your man isn’t crashing (to the basket) doesn’t mean that the ball can’t just land in his lap,” Allick said. “And so every single shot, all five guys are going to have to be locked in and have some kind of contact with their man. …
“Playing against a team like that where they have multiple guys shooting it from like, 5-feet behind 3 point line, you know, you could have an offensive rebound land outside the three point line. Talking about guarding the 3-point line, after the shot goes up, it’s another level of focus to make sure that no one loses their man or maybe relaxes.”
MOUNTAIN WEST STANDINGS: Here are the updated Mountain West standings through Tuesday’s late night games:
Mountain West standings through Tuesday:
8-2 Boise State
8-2 San Diego State
6-3 New Mexico
6-3 Utah State
4-5 San Jose State
3-7 Air Force
3-7 Fresno State
2-8 Colorado State#mwbb
— Geoff Grammer (@GeoffGrammer) February 1, 2023
READ MORE: This Lobo hoops notebook published in Tuesday’s Journal and online Monday night.