Lobos’ 6-1o low post player could turn team’s fortunes
ALBUQUERQUE — Call it an early holiday gift, or maybe just a simple reboot.
Whatever it is, the time is right for the University of New Mexico men’s basketball team to bust out its shiny new toy and give it a whirl.
Carlton Bragg, a 6-foot, 10-inch low-post monster with blue chip skills and a complex past, gained full eligibility Friday when grades from his final exams were reported to the NCAA. After sitting out for the past 21 months, he’s ready to run onto a basketball court in full uniform for the first time since helping Kansas beat Purdue in an Elite Eight game on March 23, 2017.
He will make his UNM debut Sunday afternoon in The Pit against Central Arkansas.
“I’m excited, but I don’t want to get too excited,” Bragg said after Friday’s practice in the Davalos Center. “I mean, it’s been a year and a half, so it’s going to be an emotional game for me, but I’ve got my head on straight.”
It’s nothing he hasn’t dealt with before on much bigger stages than The Pit. One of the country’s top recruits out of a Cleveland high school, he picked Kansas over a handful of the country’s top programs.
He played two seasons with the Jayhawks before transferring to Arizona State. He landed in Albuquerque 11 months ago, having never played at game for the Sun Devils.
Lobos head coach Paul Weir vetted Bragg as much has possible, researching him as far back as his days as a prep star in Ohio. Weir said he found some negatives but no one at any point tried to dissuade him from offering a scholarship.
“I have to still go through a getting-to-know process with him and he has to go through a getting-to-know process with me,” Weir said. “We’ve worked with each other, we’ve practiced with each other, but there’s still competition and there’s still games, there’s going to be a lot of nuances not only to his game but even in my coaching style.”
Weir said the biggest obstacle comes from the public’s perception. Hailed as a savior for a team that has struggled to a 4-4 start, Bragg is facing the the same expectations as Vance Jackson, a 6-8 transfer from UConn.
It’s a burden Jackson has dealt with since he arrived at UNM. Now it’s Bragg’s turn.
“It’s part of the territory when you come to play basketball for the Lobos,” Weir said.
Bragg said he picked New Mexico for a number of reasons, namely to get a chance to start over. His circuitous route from America’s Midwest to Allen Fieldhouse, to the Valley of the Sun and now to The Pit, makes him a gamble in some people’s eyes. Bragg said it’s something else.
“It’s different, it’s a challenge to me, just getting out of my comfort zone — I think that’s what I needed, a changing,” he said.
Weir has kept Bragg away from the media and the public since he arrived on campus in January. He challenged Bragg to get in shape and get his life in order. He’s done just that, making grades in the classroom and shedding 43 pounds to get down to 225, the lightest he’s been since high school.
“The hardest part was diet and eating right,” Bragg said. “I wouldn’t say starving myself, but just eating the right foods. It’s tough, it’s tough, but I’m ready to play.”
The coaching staff also monitored things off the court, things that he was asked about in his first public comments on Friday.
“You don’t have to answer all of those,” said UNM basketball sports information director Chelsea Pitvorec, chiming in before Bragg could answer a question about Weir’s demands.
“He’s come a long way,” Weir said. “Anybody who watched him work out here last year and where he’s come to now is just night and day.”
Bragg averaged 4.4 points and 3.2 rebounds in two years at Kansas, starting five games as a sophomore. He has been allowed to practice with UNM since he enrolled and his impact on the team is indisputable. He’s clearly a dominant player at both ends of the floor, a true center with skills to defend the rim on defense and the vocal nature of a team leader.
“The reality is when you add someone of his size and his caliber, it’s going to make an impact on the game,” Weir said.
The question is, how much? Weir’s Lobos have cultivated an identity of full court press and run-and-gun offense. Adding a true center to the mix seems to fly in the face of the program’s mantra.
Not so, says Weir. An effective press needs a big rim protector at the back to defend in what can be a 2-on-1 situation against teams that know how to beat it. The fact is, Bragg’s size and experience make him the most imposing full-court press backstop the team has ever had.
As for the offense, Weir said the team is making a segue into more of an inside-out scheme. That lends itself well for an aggressive low-post man who can attack the rim and siphon defenders away from the perimeter.
“I felt we were getting just a little heavy perimeter oriented,” Weir said. “Our bread and butter, especially even now getting Carlton back even moreso, is we’ve got to get the ball inside, we’ve got to utilize our size and get to the paint and got to finish those plays and get to the free throw line as well.”
Explain yourself: Weir addressed his early exit from Tuesday’s postgame press conference following the loss to Colorado, one in which the Lobos blew a 17-point lead and played lethargic defense in the second half. He said a question from longtime Albuquerque media member Henry Tafoya, one that probed the team’s lack of emotional energy, got to him.
“I think that’s what makes it painful to admit, that I’m coaching a team that that’s what gets brought up,” Weir said. “That question is valid.”
Scouting report: Sunday’s opponent, Central Arkansas, is in the midst of a brutal five-game road swing that started with a 45-point loss at Louisville, continues in The Pit, at Indiana on Wednesday and Oklahoma State next weekend.
The second game of that tour was an 85-82 win over Arkansas-Little Rock where guard DeAndre Jones buried a half-court shot at the buzzer to win it.
Sunday: Central Arkansas (4-5) at New Mexico (5-3), 2 p.m. in The Pit
TV: AT&T Sports Network
Radio: KKOB-AM 770 and KVSF-AM 1400
Live stats: www.GoLobos.com