Dec. 4—Rare is the Dec. 2 announcement by a Division I college basketball team that they've added a game to the schedule, just 10 days away, in another state.
But the New Mexico Lobos, with the hopes of trying to build a quality postseason résumé — yes, the program that is in Year 9 of its longest NCAA or NIT drought in a half-century — did just that on Friday, signing up to play the University of San Francisco on Dec. 12 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
"I would say this," second-year Lobos coach Richard Pitino said of the importance of adding a game for postseason implications. "It's pretty amazing that we're talking about this so early in this rebuild — to be in year 2 from where we were when we took over to now. ... I had no idea where we would really be (this season). I thought we'd be drastically improved, for sure."
Pitino sat down with the Journal on Saturday for a wide-ranging 50-minute podcast conversation to discuss his team, every player on the roster, and what has been a rather unique, some would say surprising, first month of the season. At 7-0, the Lobos are among the final 14 unbeaten Division-I teams (out of 363) and are coming off an eye-opening win at Saint Mary's on Wednesday that gained national attention, ended the Gael's 23-game home win streak and thus far serves as the best statistical victory for the entire Mountain West Conference this season.
Talking Grammer Podcast —Ep 55: UNM Lobo coach Richard Pitino (TG 12.3.22)
But, for all the eternal optimism of its passionate fan base, this is also a program just 39 games removed from a seemingly rock-bottom 2020-21 season in which it finished dead last in the Mountain West Conference, had only four D-I wins and was ranked 294th in the country per KenPom.com. It forced a coaching change and a nearly complete roster overhaul.
So, the quick start to this season and the unprecedented cancellation of the annual men's basketball rivalry between the Lobos and New Mexico State forced UNM and Pitino to make a decision.
"New Mexico State's off the board," Pitino said, referring to losing two quality games on the schedule. "You're having a really good year. Who knows? Knock on wood — injuries, everything like that — we could potentially be in contention for something here. Now you better go out and find a quality game."
IN THE NUMBERS: Pitino put a series of numbers on the white board for Saturday's team meeting and didn't initially tell players what the numbers represented.
For the most part, they were small numbers. Plenty of zeros in the mix.
"I drew up on the board today the stats of House, Mash, Javonte, Josiah and Morris (UNM's starting five players) in game seven of their freshman year," Pitino said. "And none of them were good. ... There was a lot of 0-fers, a lot of minimal minutes. And I just said, 'Stay the course. Everybody. Obviously we haven't lost yet, but we know you guys want individual success. Everybody's running a different race.'"
Those stat lines included:Â
—Jaelen House: 18 minutes, 0-4 shooting, 0 points, 1 rebound, 1 assist, 3 fouls
—Jamal Mashburn Jr.: 16 minutes, 1-7 shooting, 2 points, 1 rebound, 0 assists.
—Morris Udeze: 3 minutes, 0 points, 0 rebounds, 0 assists, 2 fouls.Â
—Josiah Allick: 20 minutes, 10 points, 2 rebounds, 0 assists, 4 fouls.
—Javonté Johnson: 3 minutes, 0 points, 1 rebound, 0 assists, 1 foul.
It was meant as a reminder that there is still a long road ahead — both for the young players wanting more and the older players who have to be patient with their still-developing teammates.
"It's a message to everybody: coaches, players. We all want it to happen right away," Pitino said. "... Stay patient with the younger guys. Like Sebastian (Forsling) — he's kind of had some tough moments as of late. Stay patient with him. He's going to be a really good player. Or a Birima (Seck) or the freshmen. But it was an eye-opener, because I didn't put their names next to it. And I said, 'Does anyone know what these numbers are?'"
"I was like, 'Mash, that was you game seven.' And Morris, Morris played three minutes in game seven of his freshman year (and) had two fouls. So, yeah, I think it's a reminder to everybody. In this instant gratification society, we all want it, not just the players. Be patient. Keep working hard."
ON THE NMSU GAMES: Pitino had addressed at a press conference a few days following the Nov. 19 campus shooting at UNM his thoughts on the tragedy and cancellation of the rivalry series this season with New Mexico State. He said accountability and transparency are vital, and the incident was clearly much larger than basketball.
Asked on Saturday about his thoughts a couple of weeks later from strictly a basketball standpoint and how it affected his program, he said he's proud of how his team has moved forward.
"Obviously, the specifics we've discussed. So I'm not trying to sound insensitive, but as it pertains to my program, you know, I was really proud of to be in game 4 of year 2 of a major rebuild and to have captured the New Mexico community again. I was really proud of the effort that went from an administration, from our players to be able to get that sellout. (Ticket sales for the Pit for the scheduled Nov. 19 game were on pace to exceed 15,000 in the 15,411-seat arena, which hasn't had a sold-out game since March 2015.)
"I was proud of that. Is it the end-all, be-all? No. We want to win games. ... From a basketball standpoint, I thought our guys responded really well."
Tuesday Western New Mexico at New Mexico, 7 p.m, 770 AM/96.3 FM, themw.com
PODCAST: For the full 55-episode archive of the Talking Grammer podcast, CLICK HERE or on any of the podcast providers below.
Talking Grammer: A sports podcast
Sports writer Geoff Grammer shares some of the conversations he has on the Lobos basketball...
February 20, 2018 9:41AM