The Lobos are the team in the Mountain West that, so far, has had the most tumultuous season of anyone in the conference. Last week, they suffered an excruciating loss against Colorado, complete with a post game meltdown. They then won in Kansas transfer Carlton Bragg’s first game, 82-70, beating the University of Central Arkansas on Sunday.
Last night, they dropped a 72-63 decision at home to North Texas and fell 5-5. A .500 record for a team that has sometimes looked like the preseason number three and other days they look like a defensive nightmare: Jekyll and Hyde.
Let’s examine the different things that come have come up throughout the season as issues that the Lobos have faced this season.
1. Full-court defense/effort
The thing about full-court defense is that it requires three things, and without all of them, it fails. You need conditioning, you need buy-in from your players, and a deep bench. Firstly, the Lobos have one inherent advantage: altitude. The lower amount of oxygen is a gas on visiting teams, no matter what they admit, say, or practice. You can’t replicate 5,300 feet. Secondly, when you practice consistently at altitude, you are at an advantage when you go down to sea level for road games. On the second note, that was something that Coach Weir railed against in his postgame presser after the Colorado game. Players buying into a game plan and a press when it goes well is one thing, but staying committed when things go sour is a different issue. In their game versus Colorado, there was a noticeable difference in the first half versus the second half.
The first clip here is from the first half from 12:58-14:12.
The Lobos work their inside-out offense and wind up getting a lay up from Corey Manigault. Immediately, the Lobos pick up their pressure and run Karim Ezzeddine along the baseline. They force the violation, get the ball back, and get another offensive possession within fifteen seconds. Secondly, despite the miss, they pick up full court and the Buffaloes are able to beat it in two passes. However, the Lobos play excellent transition defense and don’t allow the Buffaloes to make a single, uncontested pass. The possession ends with a contested layup and Lobo run out. Playing that kind of hard defense is indicative that a team has bought in to Weir’s style. However, when you don’t score, you can’t press. Their defense finished 204th in adjusted efficiency last season, it was just masked by a much better offense.
Statistically speaking, their offense is in the top third of college offenses, sitting 98th out 353 in adjusted efficiency. They score in bunches, even though it is a smidge lower than last year’s squad (80.2 PPG vs. 82.2 PPG). However, digging into that number belies some bigger problems. They don’t shoot the ball inside the arc well at all, shooting less than 50%. Only twenty-six teams in Division I have taken fewer two point shots. From three-point range, they’re shooting a respectable 38% as a team. However, if you take away senior scorer Anthony Mathis, that number drops to a woeful 34%. These numbers should improve over time, with guards Makuach Maluach and Dane Kuiper both shooting well below their career averages. Secondly, the added the aforementioned Bragg, which should solve some of their spacing issues. They’re playing well below the mean, statistically speaking.
3. Strength of Schedule
On paper, some of the losses that the Lobos have taken aren’t great, especially the blowouts to New Mexico State and Saint Mary’s. That has warped the view that some have had about the Lobos and their schedule in general. Statistically, even without the conference, their schedule has been tougher, according to advanced metrics, than in any of the past three seasons. New Mexico State and Saint Mary’s are both primed to be mid-contenders in the WAC and WCC, respectively. A rebuilding Colorado team has been better than expected. North Texas is 10-1 and Penn just knocked off Villanova and is the Ivy League favorite. Essentially, the MW is in a down year, with the exception of Nevada. Ultimately, this could be a case where a tough non-conference fast tracks some of the growing pains for a Lobo team that returned just Kuiper as a steady starter and Maluach as a sixth man/starter.
The Lobos were a surprise run to the MW tournament championship game, before running into a hot Aztec team that ended up making the NCAA Tournament. Then, they were pegged as the preseason number three in the conference. I don’t necessarily think that the expectations were out of line for the Lobos, more so putting the cart before the proverbial horse. This is a team that only returned one starter (Kuiper). They had to replace nearly forty points a game from last year’s squad with Furstinger, Jackson, and Sam Logwood all graduating. They expected (and he has delivered) Anthony Mathis to be the go-to scorer. They still need to integrate Carlton Bragg into their game, despite having been practicing with the team since August. Secondly, this is Paul Weir’s sophomore season at the helm for New Mexico. The learning curve can be rough, for both players and coaches. Fellow MW sophomore coach Brian Dutcher is experiencing the same kind of struggles down on the Mesa. Oh, and for good measure, the Lobos had some rough patches in the non-conference last season, losing to Tennessee Tech and lost by twenty to New Mexico State.
Ultimately, I think the Lobos have hit the learning curve really hard, really early and it’s presenting a really inaccurate picture of this team. They certainly have some work to do on the defensive end, especially putting in a full forty minute effort. They did better against North Texas, but fell short in their 74-65 loss. I think this team is going to get better and will eventually make it into the top four in the conference. It may be a bumpy ride, but the Lobos are better than they look.