Hype, praise, optimism
He’s not a hugger, but he played one in his spare time last year.
In his first season with the University of New Mexico men’s basketball team, head coach Paul Weir said he spent a good portion of his time putting on his happy face and playing his role as a cheerleader and motivational speaker for a team left in ruins before he was hired.
This year, he has fallen back into the role of no-nonsense leader. Gone is most of last year’s rag-tag roster that somehow crawled off the deck of a 3-8 start to win 19 games, finish third in the Mountain West Conference and come within seven minutes of winning an NCAA Tournament bid.
In its place is a roster loaded with size, talent — and a whole lot of something his previous team never really enjoyed.
“They have something about them; they have a very good confidence about them, and they have a belief that they’re going to win and that they’re good,” Weir said.
It does present a unique challenge. Instead of walking around patting guys on the back and telling them how well they’re playing, nowadays he finds himself tempering moods that border on arrogance. It comes from players having tasted success in the past, developing an air of confidence winning provides.
Newcomer Corey Manigault played on the top-ranked junior college team in the country, Keith McGee won a JUCO national championship and recruits like Drue Drinnon and Carlton Bragg were national targets of marquee programs.
This team, with all its hype and promise, officially opens its home regular season schedule Tuesday night against Iona (1-0). The Gaels reached the NCAA Tournament last year and offer a good test for a team with plenty of question marks.
Injuries have sidelined Drinnon and Dane Kuiper while inconsistency has given players like walk-on Jordan Arroyo a chance to get valuable playing time in the low post.
If anything sticks from last year to this one, it’s shooting the 3-pointer and playing nonstop pressure defense. The Lobos will threaten the school record they set last year beyond the arc as virtually everyone except perhaps Arroyo and center Vladimir Pinchuk will have the green light from the outside.
Even big men Karim Ezzeddine and Manigault will get the nod if they happen to find themselves open.
“Provided they continue to get good looks, you know, we’ll take the percentages wherever they happen to be,” Weir said.
The weakness at this point might be the defense. The Lobos has shown flashes of coming together but for all of the team’s preseason scrimmage against Northern Arizona, its regular season opener at Northridge and half of its exhibition against Northern New Mexico, it has shown flashes of being, well, not so good.
It wasn’t until the second half against Northern that things started to click. The Lobos held the Eagles off the scoreboard for nearly seven minutes to start the half and held them to 22 points after halftime.
“Does that mean we’re in the clear? By no means,” Weir said. “We’re just not quite where we need to be or where I want us to be at this point right now.”
Manigault is proving to be a force in the low post on defense and help is on that way with Bragg set to gain his eligibility one month from now. Until then it’s all systems go with a defense that will press, transition quickly and put pressure on the inbounds pass after every made basket.
The offense is anchored by the senior leadership of seniors Kuiper and Anthony Mathis, as well as sophomore guard Makuach Maluach and the low post play Pinchuk. Not coincidentally they are the only four players back from last year’s team.
“Without Dane and Tone’s leadership, we’d be really far off right now as opposed to hopefully just a little bit off,” Weir said.
The emergence of Arroyo in the rotation for the bigs is a bit of a surprise given his status as a walk-on. If anyone isn’t caught off guard by it, it’s Weir.
“He’s doing a really good job defensively,” Weir said. “He’s long, he effects the glass at both ends of the floor, does everything we want him to do. At this point I don’t see any reason why he wouldn’t continue to play the minutes he’s been playing.”