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Lobos guard Jamal Mashburn Jr. dribbles down the court at The Pit in January 2022.

PREVIEW: Improvement imminent for men’s basketball

In Richard Pitino’s first year as the head coach of the University of New Mexico men’s basketball team, the Lobos finished with an overall record of 13-19 — an improvement from the 2020-21 season where the Lobos only won six games. With significant players transferring to UNM and some exciting freshmen recruits, men’s basketball looks to expand on the success of last season.

Last year, the Lobos led the Mountain West conference in scoring but were last in defense, giving up the most points per game on average. However, they maintained a scoring margin of just -1.1 points. The defense’s key issues were rim protection and size. The guard-friendly offense was great for scoring, but the small ball lineup led to giving up 37.6 rebounds per game — the most in the conference.

Forwards Morris Udeze and Josiah Allick both transferred to UNM and will be key to keeping opponents off the glass. Both players led their previous team in rebounding with Udeze being sixth in the Atlantic Coast conference in rebounds per game. Udeze and Allick also have a lot to add on the offensive side of the ball with Udeze averaging 10.2 points per game and Allick with 12.9 last season.

Incoming freshman point guard Donovan Dent was a big acquisition for the program. He was last season’s Mr. California and a nationally ranked point guard, but still he will have to fight for a spot in the starting lineup.

The team’s steller backcourt of Jamal Mashburn Jr. and Jaelen House will both be returning to the team. Last season, both players made thirdrd team for All-Mountain West and led the team in scoring with 18.2 and 16.9 points per game, respectively. Mashburn started all 32 games and had consistent shooting making 43% of his shots, 34% from the three-point line and 79% from the free-throw line. House was active on defense and led the conference in steals with an impressive 2.2 per game.

Forward Jay Allen-Tovar is in his second year at UNM and still has a lot of potential. He played in all 32 games and worked his way into the starting lineup by the end of last season. He led UNM in rebounds and was third in the conference in total blocks.

Javonté Johnson will also play a big part for the Lobos: he started in 29 games and had excellent shooting splits making 47% of his shots and he made 45% of his three pointers. Sixth man KJ Jenkins is also returning and was invaluable to the Lobo offense, being third in scoring on the team despite coming off the bench.

Pitino has a lot to work with and to build off from his first year. He proved his guard-dependent offensive scheme could run the Mountain West and now has some bigger bodies to help on the defensive end. With his acquisition of players from the transfer portal and recruitment of freshmen, he has made major strides in restoring the program to its former glory. Pitino also poached Tarvish Felton from University of California, Fresno to add to his experienced coaching staff.

The Mountain West conference is slowly becoming a major player in NCAA basketball, sending four teams to March Madness last season. To become relevant in the conference and the national stage, the Lobos need to win conference games. Last season, they went 4-4 at home but were 1-8 on the road in conference play.

Fans at The Pit also continue to be a factor in games. 11 of the Lobos 13 wins came at home last season. New Mexico was second in attendance in the conference with an average of 8,697 people despite rooting for a team with a losing record.

The Lobos start their season at The Pit against Southern Utah University on Nov. 7. Other key dates for home games this season include the New Mexico State University rivalry game on Nov. 19 and Dec. 18, where head coach Pitino will be going up against his father Rick Pitino in a father/son coaching duel against Iona College. The Lobos start conference play against Colorado State University on Dec 28.

Thomas Bulger is the sports editor for the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at sports@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @thomasbulger10

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