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Emptying the Notebook: Lobos weren't ready for prime time, but House/Dent/Mashburn lineup was surprisingly good

Jan. 3—FORT COLLINS, Colo. — Here are some extra notes, quotes, stats, videos and more odds and ends I managed to empty out of the old notebook after Tuesday's 76-68 Lobos loss against Colorado State in Moby Arena:

Lobo starters were, dare I say, dominant?

First off, nobody should confuse this ETN column with me avoiding the bottom line of what happened on Tuesday night.

No. 13 Colorado State was clearly better than the UNM Lobos in a game many, myself included, thought the UNM Lobos would be ready to keep it close or even win a game that would finally announce their return to the league's upper tier — not just as a non-conference paper tiger (they were 13-0 in nonconference last season, 12-1 this season), but actually in league play once again, which has really only been the case once in the past decade (2018's 3rd place finish and MW Tournament title game run).

They failed to do that on Tuesday, but that doesn't mean they still can't do that over the next 17 games and beyond, which is why this column it starting off by looking at the unique dynamic the Lobos are facing trying to play three really, really good, but undersized guards to play one the court together this season.

So, let's look at that for now...

Through 520 nonconference minutes of basketball, the three ball-dominant guards of the UNM Lobos — seniors Jaelen House and Jamal Mashburn Jr. and emerging star sophomore Donovan Dent — had shared the court for a grand total of 8 minutes, 23 seconds.

That's 1.6% of the season entering conference play.

Say what you will about how bad things got on Tuesday in Fort Collins (plenty did, including me in my game story when I wrote "the New Mexico Lobos, at least during much of the second half, looked lost, overmatched and unprepared for conference play."), but it's also worth noting that in terms of that big question about whether those three star guards can coexist, the early returns were pretty favorable.

I mean, if the Lobos looked unprepared at times (or in the second half as I suggested), let me add that maybe that shouldn't have surprised anyone.

That 1.6% of the season thing isn't just some throwaway statistic. It's real.

Mashburn (7 games and a month out of practice), House (5 games plus 2 months total out of pre- and in-season practice) and Dent (1 game and much of the past two weeks when Mashburn was returning) are the key pieces to the puzzle (a puzzle with some really good other pieces, admittedly), and nobody knows for sure yet just what they'll be together.

But Tuesday night was a pretty good start — maybe not all the minutes the three played, but it was in terms of the minutes the three played together.

DENT/HOUSE/MASHBURN on court vs. CSU

—Total minutes: 12:35

—UNM's point differential: +13 (35-22)

I mean, I'm no math whiz, but over 40 minutes, that would be an over 40-point win.

As regular readers of ETN know, later in this column in my "Line 'em up" section, I break down the best lineup combination of the game, worst and review what the starting five did.

Well, Tuesday, in a game the Lobos lost by 8 points and were down by as many as 17 in, the UNM starting five — with Dent/House/Mashburn joined by JT Toppin and Nelly Junior Joseph — outscored the Rams by 11 points in 9 minutes, 50 seconds (the trio was also on the floor in other lineup combinations for 2:45 at +2, outscoring CSU 5-3).

So, if any UNM fan ready to hit the panic button (yes, social media had plenty of them on Tuesday) needs a cherry and silver lining to take from Tuesday's bad loss at Colorado State, how about this: UNM's starters were +11 on the court in 9:50 of action and CSU's starters were just -7 in 15:26 of action.

No, that doesn't speak well of UNM's bench, but overall I'm not really concerned about UNM's bench and depth. In fact, most nights, I would say that should be an advantage for them (missing Tru Washington in the second half due to illness really hurt the Lobos).

So, maybe the question shouldn't be how can Richard Pitino play those three together less, but how can he play them together more?

(For starters, House would need to stay out of foul trouble, but that's another topic).

Here's what Richard Pitino had to say when I asked him to assess how the three on the court together played on Tuesday:

"I think it's gonna be kind of a work in progress to get back to gelling like that."

And here's what Mashburn said when I asked him the same thing:

"I thought we had some good moments for sure. I think we just got to continue to build that chemistry. This is our first game, like you said (since Nov. 6) where it was just all us being together. And it's a learning process. Everybody's trying to find their own rhythm. And we got a lot of offensively talented guys that can get a shot anytime they want. ... You just got to kind of try to find a balance and a rhythm, flow. And that's what we're trying to find right now. And we're gonna go back to the drawing board, back to practice and and just work on it."

The gamer...

Here's the game story I filed after a late starting game at Moby Arena on Tuesday night (a little more rushed than I'd like for a print deadline I pretty much busted anyway)...

Opening things up...

UNM is now 15-10 in Mountain West openers:

HOME: 10-0

ROAD: 5-10

As far as Richard Pitino, he is now 1-2 (1-0 at home, 0-2 on the road).

Here's how past UNM coaches have fared in Mountain West openers in the 25-year history of the league (ranked by win percentage, though it's fair to note that five of the six Lobo coaches in the Mountain West era had equal or more road games than home games in their league openers):

NEAL: 4-0 (4-0 home)

FRASCHILLA: 3-0 (1-0 home, 2-0 road)

WEIR: 3-1 (2-0 home, 1-1 road)

ALFORD: 3-3 (1-0 home, 2-3 road)

PITINO: 1-2 (1-0 home, 0-2 road)

McKAY: 1-4 (1-0 home, 0-4 road)

Speaking of past Lobo coaches...

I really enjoyed getting to spend some time during Tuesday's game with former Lobo coach Fran Fraschilla. He was loving the elite playmaking from not one, but two point guards on the floor on Tuesday night: CSU's Isaiah Stevens AND New Mexico's Donovan Dent.

Speaking of Dent...

Entering Tuesday's game, two players in Division I basketball were averaging more than 16 points per game and more than 6 assists per game.

Those players: Colorado State's Isaiah Stevens and UNM's Donovan Dent.

After Tuesday's games, the same is true.

Dent had 9 assists to go along with his 10 points (his scoring average is still 16.3 points per game) while Stevens had 18 points and 8 assists.

For just the third time in 13 CSU games this season, someone other than Stevens had the most assists on the final stat sheet.

Dent's dimes came early and often on Tuesday, and his dry spell on the assists coincided with UNM's dry spell on the scoreboard when the Rams made their big second half surge.

Here's the log of Dent's assists from Tuesday:

—1 — 19:14 1H — Jaelen House 3-pointer

—2 — 17:17 1H — Nelly Junior Joseph dunk

—3 — 16:41 1H — JT Toppin 3-pointer

—4 — 12:27 1H — JT Toppin hook

—5 — 3:50 1H — Jemarl Baker 3-pointer

—6 — 0:43 1H — JT Toppin layup

—7 — 0:03 1H — JT Toppin layup

—8 — 5:43 2H — Nelly Junior Joseph layup

—9 — 0:07 2H — Jamal Mashburn Jr. jumper

Like the 3, love the paint...

As Colorado State noted in its postgame wrap up, one of Niko Medved's favorite sayings is "Like the 3, love the paint."

He's certainly not the first one to coin the phrase, but for the purposes of this column, he gets a tip of the hat because of all that happened on Tuesday night, one thing that stood out to me was how the Lobos seemed to control the game early when it was using as its primary weapon scoring at the rim.

Then, for whatever reason (foul trouble? adjustments? loss of focus?), that sort of faded away.

Entering the game, UNM had outscored opponents 42.8-28.9 in points in the paint. Tuesday, SU outscored UNM 32-28 in points in the paint.

And if you look at the assist log I noted above for Dent, he had four first half assists that led to layups or dunks off ball screen action, which was when the Lobos seemed to still be very much making a game of it. Even his assists on 3-pointers were coming off ball screens as, like a great point can do, Dent has the ability to find all four teammates on the court on a ball screen, not just the screener, which is the more common use of ball screen action.

Both coaches talked about the Lobos early success scoring in the paint and that seemingly going away as the game went on:

PITINO: "It wasn't by my design. I think it was just throughout the course of the game. I thought ball screens, dives to JT were really, really good. We needed to certainly get towards the basket a little bit more."

MEDVED: "We changed up ball screen coverage a little late in the first half and into the second half. I thought they did a really good job probably of understanding, maybe early in the game, how we were trying to play the pick and roll and I thought they were ready. And then our guys did a great job, I thought, of adjusting as the as the game went on. I thought we did a really good job with the ball screens as the game went on."

Toppin still playing really good...

Lobo freshman JT Toppin had a 17 point, 11 rebound double-double.

Here are some notes dug up from UNM Sports Information Director Steve Kirkland on that:

—Toppin's 17 points are the most by a UNM freshman in a Mountain West opener and most by a UNM freshman in a conference opener since John Robinson II scored 24 points at Fresno State in the 1998-99 WAC opener.

—Toppin posted the first double-double by a Lobo freshman in a Mountain West game since Hugh Greenwood (10 points, 10 rebounds) at Boise State on Feb. 4, 2012.

—Toppin's double-double was a team-best fourth of the season.

The high cost of those freebies...

UNM shot just 4-of-11 at the free throw line on Tuesday.

That pathetic 36.4% clip is the 7th worst for the Lobos since at least the 1998-99 season, according toe KenPom.

Making matters worse, Colorado State both got to the free throw line and made their freebies at a pretty good rate (18-21, 85.7%).

When you're outscored 18-4 at the free throw line, and you're a Lobos team who is very much an attacking offense that relies of getting to the free throw line, well, yeah. You're not going to win many games like that.

UNM's 7 worst FT% games since 1999

7. 36.4% (4-11) — Tuesday, L at CSU

6. 35.7% (5-14) — 1/15/22, L vs. Boise State

t4. 33.3% (3-9) — 1/9/07, L at Air Force

t4. 33.3% (5-15) — 11/17/01, L vs. Stanford

3. 31.2% (5-16) — 2/24/01, W at CSU

2. 30.0% (3-10) — 2/22/22, L at Utah State

1. 0.0% (0-5) — 1/1/07, L at Texas Tech

Of those seven "worst" FT shooting games in the past 26 seasons, three have come in the Pitino era, which is interesting considering the past two seasons the Lobos had top 100 FT% nationally.

UNM's FT% in Pitino era

—2023-24: 66.1% — 301st nationally, 11th Mountain West

—2022-23: 73.9% — 94th nationally, 5th Mountain West

—2021-22: 75.0% — 64th nationally, 2nd Mountain West

Isaiah Stevens loves playing the Lobos...

While he hasn't always dominated against the Lobos (December 2022 in the Pit was a rough one for the star point guard), Stevens' past two games against New Mexico have come with not only wins, but great stat lines and some milestone achievements:

—March 8: 13 assists was a program record (he actually broke that with 14 in a game earlier this season.

—Tuesday: He passed the 2,000 career points scored plateau in his college career (he entered the game with 1,999 points and now has 2,017.

Why 2K?

How many teams can say they had a player eclipse the 2,000 point plateau?

How about have two players that did it?

How about have two players do it against the same opponent?

How about have two players do it against the same opponent in back-to-back games against that opponent?

The Colorado State Rams can. And the Lobos are probably sick of it.

—TUESDAY: Isaiah Stevens scored his 2,000th career point in a win over the Lobos.

—March 8, 2023: Patrick Cartier scored his 2,000th career point in a win over the Lobos.

The Lobos host Wyoming on Saturday. But don't worry, Lobo fans, while the Cowboys have forward Mason Walters who scored a ton of points at his old school where he was the 2023 NAIA National Player of the Year, he has already long since passed his 2,000 point milestone.

4-point play...

They don't happen often, so when they do, you've got to take another look.

Here's a look at the first 4-point play of Jamal Mashburn's UNM career:

Stealing the show...

UNM had 10 steals on Tuesday, the sixth time in the past seven games they've had double-digit steals (and they had "just" nine in the other).

UNM now ranks 15th in the country, and easily first in the Mountain West, with 10.0 steals per game (UNLV is second at 8.1/game).

But the other side of another double digit steals game was the fact that the Lobos did it on Tuesday against a CSU team that doesn't turn the ball over much at all, usually.

They entered the game ranked 16th in the country (out of 363 Division I teams), according to KenPom, in turnover rate (13.9%).

CSU did match a season-worst in turnovers with 15. And those steals? Well, the Rams hadn't had an opponent record double-digit steals all season. In fact, it had been 66 games for CSU since a team recorded more than 10 steals (San Diego State had 11 in an Aztecs win on Jan. 8, 2022).

The problem for the Lobos on Tuesday, as CSU noted, was the turnovers didn't end up being the "pick-six" variety — leading to quick points at the other end. UNM did outscore CSU 15-8 in points off turnovers, but the Rams were still happy with the damage being mitigated.

"We did turn it over more than we normally do, but I thought that the turnovers were not catastrophic," Niko Medved said.

Attendance in Moby...

The announced attendance in Moby Arena on Tuesday night: 5,165

Video: Pitino, Mashburn postgame...

Here is the video I recorded of Richard Pitino and ** talking to media after Tuesday's game:

Plus/minus...

Here are Tuesday's plus/minus numbers with minutes played in parenthesis:

NEW MEXICO

+10 Jaelen House (18:31)

+3 Nelly Junior Joseph (27:16)

-2 Tru Washington (6:38)

-4 Donovan Dent (35:36)

-5 JT Toppin (30:09)

-6 Isaac Mushila (5:27)

-6 Braden Appelhans (2:17)

-7 Jamal Mashburn Jr. (31:44)

-7 Mustapha Amzil (16:59)

-16 Jemarl Baker Jr. (25:03)

COLORADO STATE

+14 Joe Palmer (17:13)

+11 Isaiah Stevens (34:39)

+8 Taviontae Jackson (10:02)

+6 Nique Clifford (32:32)

+4 Patrick Cartier (26:24)

+4 Javonte Johnson (5:20)

+3 Rashaan Mbemba (11:56)

-2 Jalen Lake (32:06)

-5 Joel Scott (24:27)

Line 'em up...

The UNM Lobos used 10 players Tuesday night and 15 lineup combinations. The CSU Rams used 10 players and had 13 lineup combinations.

Here's a look at a few of the lineups for the Lobos, starting with the starters:

STARTING LINEUP -and — BEST LINEUP

—WHO: Jaelen House, Donovan Dent, Jamal Mashburn Jr., JT Toppin, Nelly Junior Joseph

—POINT DIFFERENTIAL: +11 (30-19)

—TIME ON COURT: 9:50

—NOTE: Well, as noted earlier in the column, it wasn't the starting five that was a problem with the starting lineup that included three ball-dominant guards in Jaelen House, Jamal Mashburn Jr., and Donovan Dent. In fact, the best lineup of the game — for either team (no CSU lineup combination had a better point differential than UNM's starters) — was the Lobos' starting five.

There were a lot of other problems on Tuesday night for the Lobos, but it wasn't the 9:50 on the court from the UNM starting five. (Now, a couple of those starters figuring out how to stay out of foul trouble could be examined a little more closely, of course).

For the record, since I mentioned this lineup was better than CSU's best lineup combination, I'll post what CSU's best unit was, though I normally keep this section to the UNM Lobos. CSU's best lineup was the +8 it got in 3:46 on the court from Isaiah Stevens/Joe Palmer/Nique Clifford/Javonte Johnson/Patrick Cartier.

CSU's starting five posted a -7 in 15:26 on the floor (UNM 31, CSU 24).

WORST LINEUP

—WHO: Donovan Dent, Jamal Mashburn Jr., Jemarl Baker Jr., JT Toppin, Mustapha Amzil

—POINT DIFFERENTIAL: -8 (16-24)

—TIME ON COURT: 12:20

Meanwhile, in Laradise...

Well, one Front Range opponent down this week for the Lobos and one to go.

Wyoming visits the Pit on Saturday and is coming off a walk-off game-winner from guard Akuel Kot to beat San Jose State...

Around the Mountain...

There were four games around the Mountain West on Tuesday, three of them league openers. Here's a look...

TUESDAY

—Utah State 80 Air Force 60

—Wyoming 75, San Jose State 73

—No. 13 Colorado State 76, New Mexico 68

—UNLV 112, Bethesda University 56 (nonconference)

WEDNESDAY

—Fresno State at San Diego State, 7:30 p.m. PT/8:30 p.m. MT (FS1)

FRIDAY

—Boise State at San Jose State, 7:30 p.m. PT/8:30 p.m. MT (FS1)

SATURDAY

—UNLV at SDSU, 1 p.m. PT/2 p.m. MT (CBS)

—Nevada at Fresno State, 4 p.m. PT/5 p.m. MT (TheMW.com)

—CSU at Utah State, 7 p.m. MT (TheMW.com)

—Wyoming at UNM, 8 p.m. MT (CBS Sports Network)

Mountain West standings...

And now, these mean something...

1-0 Colorado State

1-0 Utah State

1-0 Wyoming

0-0 Boise State

0-0 Fresno State

0-0 Nevada

0-0 San Diego State

0-0 UNLV

0-1 Air Force

0-1 New Mexico

0-1 San Jose State

Off the court...

I think Southwest is just messing with me at this point.

Anyone who follows me throughout the basketball season knows I am cursed with travel, delayed regularly on flights to and from games I'm covering each season. So much so, there are Lobo fans who travel to games who now ask me which flight I'm taking so they can make sure to book a different one. (I'm looking at you, JR and Karen!)

Anyway, what would another Mountain West season be without me showing up to the airport on Tuesday afternoon to see a whole screen of departures say "On-time" except for one, which was naturally my flight.

But a one-minute delay? Really, Southwest?

Like I said, I think they just knew I was on the flight and they wanted to remind me who is in charge.

OK, back to basketball...

Sorry, Mountain Westers, but the shot of the night wasn't in Fort Collins or even in Laramie, although how about the score symmetry and walk-off nature of this one and Akuel Kot's walk-off winner over San Jose State?

No, the best shot of Tuesday night wasn't even in a men's game.

Iowa's Caitlin Clark, she of more than 3,000 career points, is just unreal. Check out her walk-off game winner on Tuesday night against Michigan State...

Stats and stats...

Here is a picture of the postgame stat sheet: Colorado State 76, New Mexico 68

And here is the digital version of the final stats: Colorado State 76, New Mexico 68

Up next...

Up next for UNM: Saturday vs. Wyoming at 8 p.m. in the Pit (CBS Sports Network)

Up next for Colorado State: Saturday at Utah State at 7 p.m. (TheMW.com)

Grammer's Guesses...

It's time for another season of Grammer's Guesses, where I post my picks for every Mountain West hoops game to show off my superior knowledge of this league.

And my daughter flips a coin to pick the same games and often beats me. Then get's grounded.

------OK, well that was the message I posted on X before Tuesday's game, having a little fun with the fact that, yes, my daughter's coin flip picks do sometimes beat me and we all have a good chuckle about it.

I then posted my picks and, felt pretty confident about a 2-1, maybe 3-0 record to start the 2024 season.

Instead, well, let's just put it this way, my daughter's grounded.

Again.

The Guesses went 0-3 against the point spread (Wyoming did win, though, just not by the point spread of 5.5 points). And my daughter's coin flip picks went 2-1.

Why do I do this?

Better yet, why would anybody keep reading this far into a column written by a guy who loses — repeatedly — to his coin-flipping daughter who doesn't even know what a point spread or the Mountain West even is?

Until next time...

Until next time, Moby Arena, on the campus of Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo., ...

Records/results...