After a shortened season that only featured three non-conference games due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the University of New Mexico women’s basketball team finally has a full slate to go up against starting in November.
The first three non-conference games of the season will be against Lamar University, Northern New Mexico College and Prairie View A&M University. UNM hasn’t lost one of their first three games of a season (not including exhibition games) since 2018, and they will more than likely beat their first three opponents this year as well. Also unlikely to give much resistance to the Lobos are the University of Louisiana Monroe who went 3-20 last year, Houston Baptist University who went 11-11 and Grambling State University who went 10-10.
Looking forward to future formidable opponents, the following lists out what UNM’s biggest challenges will be as the 2021-22 season rolls through.
University of Houston Cougars
The first obvious challenge of the season for the Lobos is the University of Houston; Houston excelled last season, finishing third in the Southland Conference. Guard Miya Crump, who tied for first in scoring average with another Cougar player last season, is transferring to Jackson State University. Still, the Cougars have a new inside presence in 6-foot-5-inch graduate transfer Fatou Diagne from Purdue University, who shot .544 from the field and averaged 8 rebounds per game last season. Diagne might secretly be a major problem for the Lobos this season, who will need to bring her outside the paint in order to counter her length.
Stephen F. Austin University Lumberjacks
Stephen F. Austin University joined the Western Athletic Conference after finishing third in the Southland Conference and going an impressive 24-3 overall. SFA is powered by their two starting guards: Stephanie Visscher, their leading scorer who is ruthlessly efficient shooting .517 from the field and .412 from three, and Zya Nugent, who averaged 12.3 points per game.
In many ways, SFA is similar to UNM; both ranked highly in points per game (UNM was ninth in the nation at 81.2 and SFA was 11th at 80.2). In addition, while UNM was elite in regard to their assist-to-turnover ratio, SFA dished out more assists than nearly anyone in the country. Such stats suggest that this may be the only game of the season that the Lobos may want to slow the pace of play.
Texas Tech University Red Raiders
Texas Tech University finished a respectable seventh in the Big 12 Conference, but they made some important moves to improve their guard play, which is their weakest area after the departure of star Vivian Gray. Bre’amber Scott is transferring from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock after leading the Trojans in scoring average. She’s a high-volume player, only shooting 33.1% from the field to score 18.0 points per game, but her 81.8% from the free-throw line indicates that, when surrounded by better players, that shooting percentage may improve.
A far more proven shooter is also arriving: Lexy Hightower, a Division II transfer who shot 44.1% from three over three years at West Texas A&M. These two guard transfers will be vital to the Red Raiders' rebuild and may make them a more formidable team for the Lobos to face.
New Mexico State University Aggies
New Mexico State University had a disappointing season last year, finishing outside the top three in the Western Athletic Conference, which has been a rare occurrence for the Aggies in the past decade. Still, UNM’s in-state rival always puts on a good show, and with only one incoming freshman this year, NMSU seems to feel confident about the development of their returning players. The two UNM-NMSU games will be competitive.
University of Arizona Wildcats
As the first of the two biggest opponents for the Lobos, the University of Arizona may be diminished after Aari McDonald was drafted third overall by the Atlanta Dream into the WNBA, but they are returning three starters and going with an eclectic incoming class to try and replace her.
Madison Conner, Aaronette Vonleh and Anna Gret Asi form the backbone of what ESPN ranked the 16th-best recruiting class in the nation; Conner was ranked as the 29th-best guard in her high school class by ESPN and Vonleh was ranked the ninth-best post player. Asi is an Estonian 4.5-star point guard who’s been playing against adults since she was 15 years old. Even without McDonald, Arizona will be the best team that UNM faces this season and would be a remarkable win for them.
The University of Texas at El Paso Miners
The University of Texas at El Paso loaded up this offseason after finishing second in the Conference USA West Division. UTEP worked to add scoring in former Jacksonville leading scorer Erin Wilson, former McDonald’s All-American Adhel Tac and two-time All-Sun Belt Conference honoree Teal Battle from Little Rock. UTEP proved itself to be a well-rounded basketball team last season, effective on both ends of the court and having a good spread of scoring load. UNM will have a chance to assert the kind of game they want, and they should.
This schedule is a good mix of teams from across the Sun Belt. After last season’s conference-heavy schedule, getting to see UNM women’s basketball play schools like Arizona and UTEP will be telling no matter the result. Wins or strong showings, especially against Arizona, will bolster the Lobos’ chance of getting selected to the NCAA tournament should they lose the Mountain West Conference tournament.
Matthew Salcido is the sports editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @baggyeyedguy