Last year, the University of New Mexico men’s basketball team was terrible on the offensive. They couldn’t shoot, they turned the ball over way too much and their defense was poor in the backcourt. There were problems all over the roster, but the most glaring started at the guard positions, which are the most important positions in college basketball. This season won’t be perfect in that department either, but UNM does have two players that could propel the Lobos to better offensive bliss if they can play together: Saquan Singleton and Jamal Mashburn Jr.
Singleton is a 6-6 combo guard who, two years ago, was playing at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas after a solid — but not phenomenal — high school career; now he’s entering his second season as a Lobo and is about to break through to being one of the best players in the Mountain West Conference.
Singleton was the second-highest scorer per game for the Lobos last season, averaging 8 points per game; as a shooter he was poor, shooting 41% from the field, 16% from three and 51% from the free-throw line. But while he was fairly abysmal shooting from the free-throw line last season, he was quietly one of the best in the nation at getting to the line in the first place. Singleton ranked fifth in the nation in free-throw rate, or the ratio of a player’s free-throw attempts to their field goal attempts, according to college basketball database KenPom. He drew 5.9 fouls per 40 minutes played, the 59th-highest in the country.
While improving his free-throw shooting percentage will be essential, Singleton is also a versatile defender (20 steals and 15 blocks last season) and led the team in assists last season. It would be extremely beneficial for UNM to have Singleton starting for the Lobos again.
The college game typically lends itself to teams with assertive guard tandems that create shots off the dribble. Incoming transfer Mashburn is practically sure to start at guard alongside Singleton, and for good reason. New head coach Richard Pitino has praised him in the past, and he’s most familiar with Pitino’s system. Mashburn had the third-highest usage percentage last season under Pitino and is a proven game manager, ranking 237th in the nation in turnover rate.
Singleton and Mashburn complement each other on paper; Singleton is dynamic and explosive while shaky in his efficiency, while Mashburn is confident with the ball and a better free-throw shooter. Neither has ever been the No. 1 option on a team before, and for the sake of the team, neither should be the clear No. 1 this year either. If the Lobos can use both guards frequently and together, they may form one of the more exciting engines that UNM has seen in recent years.
Matthew Salcido is the sports editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @baggyeyedguy