Despite Early Adversity, Paul Weir Looks To Guide New Mexico To Strong Start
New Mexico started 2-8 against D-I competition last season but finished third in Mountain West play
New Mexico was pegged third in the conference’s preseason poll this week
At the point of completion of New Mexico’s 5-8 non-conference slate last season, the team’s ninth-place preseason projection seemed accurate, if not a bit generous.
The Lobos owned just four victories over D-I teams, all of which took place in Albuquerque (Omaha, Evansville, Rice, and Prairie View A&M), as well as head-scratching losses to Tennessee Tech (surrendering 104 points in The Pit) and UTEP (whose head coach abruptly retired earlier that week).
There were some positive signs in November and December, sure, but first-year head coach Paul Weir’s group resembled nothing of a team that would win 19 games and fall three possessions short of an NCAA Tournament bid.
“We knew where we were picked,” Weir told Mountain West Wire during the Mountain West media summit earlier this week. “We knew when we walked in here last year how everybody thought about us. But I didn’t want that to necessarily be the way the team felt about itself.”
Weir acknowledged that he was far more focused on building the team – which was largely comprised of newcomers and lightly-used returnees – through positive reassurance than facing the season’s challenges head-on.
“I really wanted the team to feel good about where it was at and I think in that process we didn’t put them in enough stressful situations so that we could grow and individually handle adversity. So going into this year we’ve tried a lot more of that with a much tougher offseason and a much tougher preseason,” Weir said.
Fast forward ten months from the 5-8 start and you find a second-year coach fielding questions about whether he or his players feel slighted by a third-place league projection. New Mexico, with 153 voting points, was next in line in the media poll following Nevada (207 points) and San Diego State (188). Both teams were NCAA Tournament participants in March.
Though the local and national perception around the program have flipped dramatically over the calendar year, Paul Weir’s squad is tasked with an early uphill battle once again. Starting point guard JaQuan Lyle, a double-digit scorer by the way of Ohio State and a highly sought-after transfer, ruptured his Achilles during a September practice and will miss the entire season.
“I think everybody feels awful for the injury and for what happened to (Lyle) as a person. As a young man sitting out and getting an injury on top of that you feel awful,” Weir said.
It certainly isn’t time to alter expectations, though. New Mexico brings back an elite shooter in Anthony Mathis, rising sophomore Makuach Maluach, 26-game starter Dane Kuiper, and welcomes former five-star recruit Carlton Bragg as well as a handful of talented newcomers.
“Our team literally moved on immediately as far as what’s next and how we’re going to be the best we can be,” Weir said.
The ex-New Mexico State head coach will face the ’18-19 season with a different approach than he did last fall. The team’s expectations are significantly higher, which means more time focused on winning basketball games and making sure the players are as game-ready as possible.
“There’s a lot less hugging and there’s a lot more creating stress. We can see how we’re going to react to that and grow so when it comes about in the season we’ll be able to adapt to it more.”
New Mexico will be favored in most if not all of its non-conference matchups. It’s further reason why a quick start is imperative to a successful year in Albuquerque.
Eli Boettger is the lead basketball writer at Mountain West Wire. He’s covered Mountain West basketball since 2015 and his work has been featured on Bleacher Report, NBC Sports, SB Nation, Yahoo Sports, MSN, and other platforms. Boettger is a current USBWA member.