Mountain West Basketball Team Preview: New Mexico Lobos
It’s Year One Under Richard Pitino
New Mexico enters year one of the rebuild under Richard Pitino
In the 2020-2021 college basketball season, the New Mexico Lobos had something happen for only the second time since the distant 1962-1963 season: single digits (6) in the win column. And the drought between the most recent season with such a result and the last one was 40 years. The only team with greater bragging rights in this category is UNLV, which hasn’t suffered a single-loss season in it’s 53 seasons, though Boise State and Utah State are just around the corner from a 40+ streak of double digit win season. And while double digit win seasons aren’t necessarily all that impressive (say if we are counting 10 wins), it should be a minimum expectation in the Land of Enchantment, and for most programs in the conference for that matter.
Since New Mexico hasn’t experienced back-to-back single-digit win seasons since Bob King took the reigns of a program newly-minted into the WAC, such a season is unlikely to happen again. Expectations in New Mexico after the influx of head coach Richard Pitino and some new faces on board are at least double digits. But to be more than just a single-digit win team though, New Mexico has to win some key games this season, three of which are the non conference slate.
Three Most Important Non-Conference Games
Colorado – NOv. 13, 4:30 PM MST, Boulder, CO.
The Lobos get an early test against Tad Boyle’s Buffaloes from the PAC-12. The Buffaloes were a five seed in the 2021 NCAA tournament, and while expected to take a bit of a step back this year, this will be an early litmus test for a New Mexico team that is hard to gauge with so much new going on.
University of Alabama Birmingham (Las vegas invitational) NOv. 25, 5:30 PM MST, Las vegas, nv.
The last time and only time New Mexico played UAB was early in the season during the 2013 Charleston Classic, a 97-94 win for the Lobos. That New Mexico team, in it’s first year under now former head coach Craig Neal, went on to win 27 games before falling in the first round of the NCAA tournament. At that time New Mexico was a heavy favorite. This time? A good UAB should be expected to win. But if New Mexico can hang on, they’ll get a shot at the better between Towson and San Francisco in the finals of the Las Vegas Invitational.
southern methodist – Dec. 19, 1:00 PM, Albuquerque, NM.
Speaking of tests, SMU has one of their own early in the season against a PAC-12 opponent of their own in #13 Oregon. If New Mexico can get past Colorado, and SMU pulls off their own stunner, this could not only be a key game, but a fun one to watch.
Key Players For a Successful Season
Jamal Mashburn jr.
After following head coach Richard Pitino from Minnesota, Mashburn Jr. will likely look to take on an even bigger role at New Mexico than he had at Minnesota. The Lobos will need production out of Mashburn, who will likely benefit from a move to the oft-brutal Big 10 to the Mountain West.
New Mexico has desperately needed consistency at the point in recent years. The unsteadiness at the position has been reflected in the unsteadiness of the program overall in the last decade. If Jaelen House can bring a solid helping of the fundamentals (along with those lightning quick feet), New Mexico has a chance to be above the expectations.
Without projected starter Valdir Manuel, the Lobos will need help up front immediately. If the sophomore transfer from Kansas can help down low, the talented backcourt may have the boost they need to make the season interesting.
With a guard-heavy lineup and long, athletic bigs, expect New Mexico to play a faster-than-average pace of play in a motion-oriented offense. As in previous years, the Lobos will rely on quality shots early in the clock to keep a good pace in the game. If the shooters come as advertised, they may have a shot at the system working in their favor.
From the defensive side of things, expect a strong man-to-man defense that takes advantage of the guard-heavy lineup and tries to disrupt the lane enough to prevent deficiencies inside.
While this team will be better than a year ago, it’s tough to turn a program around in a year that has had its fair share of struggles in the last near-decade. Double digit wins are expected this season, but New Mexico will ultimately fall short of the 20-win mark for the ninth consecutive year and finish in the 7th-8th place range in the conference.