ALBUQUERQUE — He’s back, but it doesn’t necessarily make things any better.
After being absent for more than a week due to COVID-19, University of New Mexico men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino returned to the struggling Lobos in time for Thursday’s practice and will face off at Saturday afternoon’s game against rival Boise State Mountain Stand West on the touchline.
The UNM first-year frontman described his time in isolation as far from ideal during a Friday press conference with local media. He said he watched from home as the Lobos continued to fall into the conference basement with losses to Utah State and UNLV.
“It’s interesting how it works because, you know, in normal times, could I have hollowed it out? Definitely,” Pitino said of his illness, which he described as something worse than a cold. “But it’s obviously bigger than a person.”
The lobos are even thinner now than they were when Pitino went into isolation. The team lost to Utah forward Emmanuel Kuac due to a broken left leg. The 6-foot-7 junior was the team’s best jumper and got precious minutes in the post following the departures of Valdir Manuel and Gethro Muscadin. Manuel was the planned starting center before the start of the season but left the team before the opener, while Muscandin was the low starting post before entering the transfer portal last month.
7-9 overall and 0-3 in the MWC, the Lobos are the only team in the league with an overall record under .500 and as of this weekend one of only three teams without a win in conference play. With the visit of Boise State (11-4, 2-0), it doesn’t get any easier to make a last-second substitution for Saturday’s game after MWC canceled San Diego State’s game against the Broncos due to COVID-19 concerns UNM plan swapped with SDSU.
The lobos have sometimes been debunked for their small size. Opponents were able to dominate the low posts at either end of the ground, allowing their guards to focus on UNM’s only remaining option – the 3-point shot. Additionally, the Lobos can’t counter with much size at the guard spots with starters Jamal Mashburn Jr. and Jaelen House and reserve KJ Jenkins all 6-2 or down.
“Unfortunately, right now we don’t have a lot of flexibility to play against a team that’s going to be big,” Pitino said. “We are who we are and let’s do our best. We are not yet at the stage of the program where we can now take countermeasures in various ways. That’s where we are.”
The Lobos have made more 3-pointers than any other team at Mountain West, but rank eighth in conversion rate and make just 33.7 percent of 389 attempts in 16 games. With teams challenging the Lobos to pass the ball inside, it’s an open season for UNM’s perimeter play — and should be for the remainder of Pitino’s freshman season.
He said one of the biggest challenges he and his staff have faced since taking over last spring has been building a roster and recruiting network without actually being able to take to the streets to recruit new players . Most contacts between coaching staff and potential recruits have been interrupted for almost a year between 2020 and 2021 due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Now that the season has started, contact has been reestablished – but, Pitino warned, it takes time to nurture those relationships when staff are new to the area and haven’t made the contacts of other staff.
“I don’t want to sound insensitive, I know everyone goes through this in every walk of life, but it’s hard to do your job at the highest level with everything that’s happening right now,” he said. “Putting together a roster when you’re not allowed to go to recruiting, that’s a big deal. So we did the best we could.”
In other words, the next seven weeks could get a little bumpy as UNM ends their season with a patchwork roster missing a huge chunk.
But, hey, it’s not all bad for Pitino. At least he’s back with the players, providing his leadership to a team that badly needs it.
“It’s not that our assistants did a bad job, but I’m the voice,” he said. “I’m the trainer, they’ve heard from me running the workouts.”
REMARKSWomen’s Basketball: The Lobos haven’t slowed down at all after winning the MWC regular-season championship last year; they are 14-4 overall and 5-0 in the conference after Thursday’s win on the road in Wyoming. Next up is a Saturday matinee in Colorado State, then two straight games at The Pit next week.
In spite of all this, the Lobos hardly make any headway in the NET rankings. As one of the NCAA tournament field selection tools, the system has New Mexico ranked 102nd on this week’s chart.
The Lobos remain the highest-scoring team in the Mountain West at 76.3 points per game and are by far the top 3-point shooting threat in the conference after making 178 shots from beyond the arc — 69 more than that second closest team.
farewell party: Janice Ruggiero has announced her retirement after nearly four decades as a student, coach and athletics executive. She rose to the ranks of interim athletic director in 2017 and has served as assistant AD for internal affairs for the past seven years.
Ruggiero does not go far. She will continue to serve her alma mater, for whom she played women’s basketball from 1984, as a member of the UNM Foundation in a fundraising capacity.