Nearly a month into the season, the University of New Mexico men's basketball team is 7-0 and is one of only 14 remaining undefeated teams in Division 1 basketball. While the Lobos haven't played a lot of prestigious programs, they have played against a lot of competitive teams. After a win against St. Mary's College, UNM looks poised to make a run in the conference — and maybe make the NCAA tournament.
The reason UNM's 69-65 win is so encouraging is because of St. Mary's fifth-seed placement in March Madness last season. St. Mary’s is a team that has an elite defense, with opponents averaging 57.5 points per game — the 19th best in the nation. While the Lobos initially had trouble scoring, they found a way to win the game.
The Lobos’ offense has looked impressive and well-conditioned: they average 19.75 fastbreak points a game, tied for ninth most in the country. The high paced offense also leads to a lot of free throws. The Lobos have shot the 14th most free throws in the country and have made 74% of them.
The offense has proved it can score, but the team will only go as far as their defense can take them. Turnovers is a key part of the Lobo defense and the team has been handling them well: they have the 30th best turnover ratio, forcing 110 and giving up 78. However, they give up an average of 67.7 points a game which already put them in eighth place in the conference. Going into conference play, the Lobos will have to force missed shots because the offense won't be able to simply outscore opponents every game.
The additions of forwards Morris Udeze and Josiah Allick have already been invaluable to the team. Through the first seven games of the season, Udeze has averaged 18.6 points, leading the team in scoring. He’s also averaged 6.1 rebounds and was named the Mountain West Conference Player of the Week after being named MVP of the Lobo Classic. Allick leads the team in rebounds, grabbing 7.9 a game and has averaged 9.6 points.
Jamal Mashburn Jr. and Jaelen House picked up right where they left off from last season and have scored 16.3 and 17 points per game, respectively. On defense, House sometimes leaves his player open while opting to go for a steal, but so far has made other teams pay with 24 steals; he also leads the team in blocks with six. Mashburn has been an efficient shooter this season, but has been most effective with timely scoring toward the end of games.
Javonté Johnson had started all seven games, but has had some early shooting troubles making three of his 15 3-pointers; he’s has made up for it on the defensive end by being able to opponent wing players. KJ Jenkins will come off the bench during games and has scored 6.7 points per game, preventing the offense from stalling when Mashburn and House are on the bench.
Freshman guard Donovan Dent has played in all 7 games and has looked incredibly promising. Dent is second in the team in assists behind House. When in the game, Dent has primary ball-handling responsibilities which sometimes leads to freshman mistakes and sloppy turnovers, but has been very effective at getting to the free throw line; he’s only made 56% of his 23 free throws, though. He averages 5.6 points a game.
It has not been all positive for the Lobo roster: Jay Allen-Tovar chose to leave the team and transfer elsewhere. Allen-Tovar led the team in rebounds last season with five per game. It became apparent that Allen-Tovar was not going to start over the additions of Udeze and Allick per his Instagram on Nov. 30. He has five finalist schools, including Southern Utah University, a team UNM defeated earlier this season, and rival school New Mexico State University.
Following the cancellation of the Rio Grande rivalry games both in Albuquerque and Las Cruces, UNM has found a replacement game against the University of San Francisco on Dec. 12. The game will be competitive with San Francisco having been the 10th seed in last season's NCAA tournament. If the Lobos continue to succeed through conference games come Selection Sunday on March 12 for the NCAA tournament, non-conference games against competitive programs will help bolster the Lobos’ chances.
In year two of his rebuild, head coach Richard Pitino now has a winning record under UNM being 20-19 after defeating St. Mary's. He has quickly made a competitive program and found players who can win games. The key to continued success for the Lobos is not taking defensive possessions off and just staying healthy.
The Lobos next play against Western New Mexico University on Tuesday, Dec. 6 at The Pit.
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Thomas Bulger is the sports editor for the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @thomasbulger10