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Men's Basketball Recap

From left, Carlton Bragg, Vance Jackson and Keith McGee, enter the court at Dreamstyle Arena. 

Men's Basketball: Despite difficult season, Lobos still have potential

For many fans, the University of New Mexico men's basketball team has failed to live up to expectations this season — as high hopes and tremendous upside turned to mediocrity and relative embarrassment at times.

The team returned a pair of seniors in Anthony Mathis and Dane Kuiper as well as sophomores Makauch Maluach and Vladimir Pinchuk — all of whom seemed to flourish under the leadership of then first-year UNM head coach Paul Weir.

That quartet was joined by a slew of transfers, a couple of whom came from some high-profile programs. Vance Jackson came to UNM via UCONN, JaQuan Lyle transferred from Ohio State and the long-awaited debut eventually saw Carlton Bragg, who had previously played as a Kansas Jayhawk, take the floor.

Things hit a snag right out of the gate when Lyle, arguably the best player on the roster, ruptured his achilles in the teams' first practice — which ended his season before it even began.

New Mexico (11-15, 5-9 MW) started the season 4-1, but found its way on the wrong side of a couple of lop-sided defeats and lost twice to its in-state rival New Mexico State Aggies. And even with Bragg's insertion into the lineup after finally getting cleared by the NCAA and 16-point performance in his first game, things ultimately didn't get any easier.

Many fans thought UNM may have arrived after an 85-58 beatdown of then-No.6 Nevada when it hosted the Wolf Pack on Jan. 5, but the Lobos lost three straight following that presumed signature victory and have continued to be consistently inconsistent throughout.

Head coach Paul Weir has tried different defenses, coaching philosophies and has constantly been searching for the right mix of players — with varied, but little success.

New Mexico had difficulty finding a point to bring the ball up the court and get the offense into any kind of flow. Senior guard Anthony Mathis shouldered that responsibility for a while, but doing so seemed to make him one-dimensional and took away one of his greatest assets — coming off screens to get free looks at 3-point shots.

Nevada exacted its revenge with a 92-61 thumping of New Mexico earlier this month — one of four 20+ losses the Lobos have suffered this season.

But, while things look bleak for the UNM men's basketball team, fans might be able to take solace knowing a few things.

Last year's team was 12-14 before rattling off seven straight wins en route to a Mountain West title game appearance, falling just short of winning the MW crown, losing 82-75 against San Diego State.

This year's team — strictly from a talent level — appears to have more of it, and therefore, a higher ceiling.

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Despite the fact that the team hasn't seemed to click, at 11-15, this team is only one loss worse than last year through the same amount of games played.

Perhaps even more encouraging, the final four remaining regular season games are against schools that all have a losing record in conference play. And analytic metrics, like KenPom ratings have the Lobos projected to win all four.

Keith McGee and Drue Drinnon has logged meaningful minutes and have seemed to show signs of growth. While there is still plenty of room for improvement, getting that experience sooner rather than later could pay dividends.

Still, UNM has a very difficult road ahead if it wants to duplicate last season's result of peaking at the right time. As Weir has mentioned during several media conferences, this team's margin for error is very slim.

Nevada is the prohibitive favorite to win the Mountain West Tournament in March, and the Lobos still appear to have a long way to go to catch up to the talent level of Utah State, San Diego State, Fresno State or UNLV — which are poised to get a free pass through the first round as the top five seeds.

There is no disputing that UNM has been immature at times and is still very inexperienced. There have been some ugly moments Lobo fans have been forced to sit through.

That means it cannot endure a sub-par shooting half, or even afford to have long scoring droughts during games — for any extended period of time. The team will have to limit both its own turnovers and the points opponents score of them, as well as maximize on other team's mistakes.

For the Lobos to have a chance to win any game in the 2019 Mountain West Men's Basketball Championship, they will likely need to have at least three players step up with solid shooting performances and reaching the double-digit plateau may not be enough.

New Mexico may need to rely on a trio, at minimum, get hot from the floor in any given game. And whether its Maluach, Kuiper or transfer Corey Manigault — someone will probably need to be a consistent fourth scorer for the team to make any noise.

Growing pains and finding out how to win as the season has progressed is something most teams go through and it speaks to one of Weir's mantras. Winning matters, but the head coach has always preached being more process-oriented as opposed to results-oriented.

In the coming weeks, we will find out if the process will ultimately yield results.

 Robert Maler is the sports editor for the Daily Lobo. He primarily covers basketball and baseball and contributes content for various other sports as well. He can be contacted at or on Twitter @Robert_Maler.   

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