Anticipation mounts at dawn of new Lobos era

December 16, 2018

It’s hard to go through a press conference in The Pit without someone name-dropping the heart and soul of last season’s University of New Mexico men’s basketball team.

Joe Furstinger came up twice during Friday’s preparation for Sunday’s game against Central Arkansas in The Pit. It was mentioned by Lobos head coach Paul Weir that Big Joe, who ended his four-year Lobo career after leading the team to 19 wins last season, led UNM in blocked shots while spending most of his time at the center and power forward positions.

He also brought a certain energy and effort to the team, something no stat could ever reveal.

If Carlton Bragg has his way, people will soon start talking about him the way they still do with Furstinger.

“I see myself as a game changer, yes,” Bragg said.

A 6-foot-10 junior who played two years at Kansas before winding his way through the transfer process to land at UNM, he’ll make his Lobos debut at 2 p.m. Sunday. It’s been a long time coming and is a premier many a Lobo fan has been itching for ever since he landed on campus in January.

Even UNM is jumping on the hoopla bandwagon. On Friday, the UNM basketball’s Instagram account posted a 43-second clip of Bragg in uniform dribbling the ball down The Pit ramp. His face is concealed until the very end when he bursts through a red tarp and screams, “Let’s go Lobo nation!”

Affixed is the hashtag #TimeToBragg.

Weir won’t say if Bragg will start or how many minutes he’ll play, but he said one of the biggest impacts he’ll make is doing what Furstinger did a year ago. A true rim protector who has a nose for the ball, Bragg could be the low-post threat New Mexico has been searching for ever since Cameron Bairstow filled the gap at power forward five years ago.

The fact that he’s dropped 43 pounds, is leaner and faster now than he has been since his senior year in high school, and that he’s been around the block a few times at Kansas and been a part of UNM’s conditioning program for 11 months — he feels he’s as ready to go as he ever has been.

“I think I can bring a lot of energy to this team,” Bragg said. “Just to get the spark going, to get everybody else going.”

If anything has been missing from this team, it’s exactly that — which brought up another Furstinger reference, one about effort and energy outweighing pure talent alone. This year’s Lobos are clearly more talented at virtually every position, but the team has stumbled through an ugly three-game losing streak that has people ready to label it as an underachiever.

“We’ve all had our ups and downs, but we just keep going, keep practicing and keep getting better every day,” Bragg said, adding that he’s leaning on his own experience from his time at Kansas to become a leader on and off the court.

Anyone who watches him in practice can attest to his assertive nature. A monster in the paint, he’s not afraid to speak out and be the vocal leader who offers both encouragement and criticism when necessary.

His inclusion in the lineup therefore brings up a question of playing time for the team’s other bigs, sophomore Vladimir Pinchuk and, to a lesser extent, fellow posts Corey Manigault and Karim Ezzeddine. Pinchuk and Bragg will occasionally see time on the floor together, Weir said, but it’s clearly one of those things where some players will see their minutes reduced as everyone adjusts to Bragg spending time on the floor.

“Carlton’s unique in that he can shoot, you know, he’s got a very good looking shot,” Weir said. “For now, particularly just to get him going early on, the idea’s getting him around the rim, get him comfortable. The kid hasn’t played in a long time, so we’ll just try to ease him as best we can.”

Bragg and Manigault spent considerable time in the same rotation during Friday’s practice, suggesting the two will see plenty of time on the floor together. In any case, Weir said the luxury of having what amounts to four players sharing 80 minutes in the low post is a luxury not even Joe Furstinger had.

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