Roster, defensive improvements and summer chemistry spark optimism
Paul Weir is cautiously optimistic about the 2019-2020 season
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Can a talented New Mexico team show cohesiveness in 2019-2020?
In 2018-2019, hope sprung high for the New Mexico Lobos which had, for the first time in several years, garnered high expectations from fans and pundits alike. Projected to finish third in the conference behind Nevada and San Diego State, the Lobos were supposed to storm back into top tier relevance in the Mountain West Conference, powered by several high-profile transfers.
While the team started the season off reasonably well, going 5-1 in their first six games – three of which were against NCAA tournament teams New Mexico State, Iona, and Bradley – the wheels came loose. The Lobos posted a 1-5 record through the remainder of their non-conference schedule. Inconsistency became the norm and continued through the conference schedule, the epitome of which was beating then No. 6 Nevada, and also being the only team in the conference to be overcome by perennial bottom-dweller San José State.
It was clear from early on where the weakness lay. It was the defense, always the defense.
While the team wasn’t as offensively precise as might have been expected, defensive inefficiency was what caused the most headaches throughout the 2018-2019 season.
In 2019-2020, Paul Weir expressed confidence that his team’s defense will be markedly improved.
“I think defensively, obviously with Dan [McHale], our style of play, with the players that we have, I really feel as though that [defense] is going to be our calling card this year. I think we can guard at a really high level and then put ourselves in a position to hopefully win a lot of basketball games,” he stated at a July 31st press conference. “I think defensively, the leap we’re going to make this year – I feel – is going to be pretty significant”.
From the look of things, it seems likely that New Mexico will employ its full-court press scheme to a greater extent than in the previous season. While fans may be concerned about the style working within the modern college basketball framework, Weir noted that West Virginia, a near perennial contender in the NCAA Tournament under Bob Huggins, struggled in the 2019-2020 season using Bob Huggins’ proven, “Press Virginia” system. The Mountaineers finished 15-21 and competed in the College Basketball Invitational, falling to Coastal Carolina in the quarterfinals.
“West Virginia, last year, went through the exact same thing. They lacked the foot speed that they wanted to get it done with,” said Weir.
While New Mexico’s loss of Anthony Mathis, who was granted a fifth year of eligibility and subsequently transferred to Oregon, stings a little, this season finds the Lobos with another on-paper increase in talent, giving rise to some cautious optimism from Weir and company. While the Lobos roster is nothing certain (primarily because of potential eligibility issues), there are some surefire additions that should immediately make an impact, both defensively and offensively.
Immediate impact players include guards JaQuan Lyle, Zane Martin (Towson), Vante Hendrix (Utah) and JJ Caldwell (Texas A&M). Each have the foot speed that Weir is looking for. All except Hendrix, who is working through NCAA eligibility requirements, are cleared to play starting in the fall.
Lyle, a fifth-year player, and Caldwell, both known for their passing prowess, were ESPN top 100 prospects out of high school. Martin may not be as familiar a name but is a proven scorer, having scored 19.8 points per game in the 2017-2018 season at Towson. Both Lyle and Martin made Mountain West Wire’s lead basketball writer Eli Boettger’s top five passers and top five scorers lists respectively.
There will be several freshmen coming into the program as well, all of whom exemplify an athletic game. Emmanuel Andrew, a super athletic 6-7 small forward is set to play from day one.
Here is Andrew in action.
4-star Antwan January, the cousin of former Lobo and current Detroit Piston Tony Snell and Kurt Wegscheider of the NBA Academy Africa are both working through eligibility issues. While Wegscheider is expected to be cleared to play at the beginning of the season, there is much less certainty regarding January. Weir has been cautious about sharing information about the status of former University of Illinois commit, but did admit that “we are uncertain of whether he’ll join us in the fall”. With the departure of Vladimir Pinchuk to the University of San Diego, the Lobos frontcourt would benefit from the early season addition of January.
But even if January is ruled ineligible, New Mexico should have plenty of talent to compete in the frontcourt with seniors Corey Manigault (9.0 points, 4.6 rebounds, 0.7 assists per game), Carlton Bragg (10.5 points, 8.8 rebounds, 1.2 blocks per game) and junior guard/forward Vance Jackson (13.1 points, 7.0 rebounds, 2.7 assists per game).
Throw in Makuach Maluach (9.9 points, 4.0 rebounds, 1.9 assists per game) as a stretch “4” and you can start to see just how loaded this roster is.
Then there are the returning guards including Keith McGee (9.1 points, 1.8 assists per game) and the steady-looking point guard Drue Drinnon (2.9 points, 2.3 assists per game). Tavian Percy and walk-on Jordan Arroyo also return for their sophomore seasons.
While the roster that Weir and his staff have put together is an impressive top-to-bottom list, and the third year coach’s confidence in the team’s defensive skill set is promising, the necessity of chemistry and consistency remain. Quelling the concerns for now, Weir again showed a cautious optimism.
“Our chemistry this summer – I think the guys’ connectedness – has been much better than I ever anticipated. . . the leadership, the ownership is vastly superior to anything since I’ve been here.”
With one of the youngest teams in the NCAA last season, having seven juniors and seniors available to play in 2019-2020 gives the Lobos more experience – an ingredient that was sorely lacking in the topsy-turvy 2018-2019 season.
Perhaps the experience and talent-laden roster will finally be enough to vault the Lobos back onto the national stage, and into the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2014. If the “on-paper” talent can translate to on-court results, it’s good news for the Lobos and a fan-base that yearns for the annual success that was had under the Steve Alford/Craig Neal tandem.