Emptying the Notebook: Shaq steals spotlight, Lobos defense earning moniker 'The Team of Steal'

Jan. 7—Here are some extra notes, quotes, stats, videos, thoughts, ramblings and whatever other odds & ends I managed to empty out of the old notebook after Saturday's 77-60 Lobos win over Wyoming in the Pit:

I dub thee, The Team of Steal

Shaquille O'Neal is the man of 1,000 nicknames.

Shaq Fu. Shaq Daddy. Shaq Diesel. DJ Diesel (the moniker that actually brought him to Albuquerque on Saturday as he had a performance at Revel Entertainment he had to get to after watching the first half between the Lobos and Wyoming Cowboys in the Pit).

As the basketball Hall of Famer who called himself "The Man of Steel" in his playing days and once starred in the 1997 movie Steel sat courtside Saturday night watching the first half in the Pit, the Lobos impressed with 13 steals and forced 18 turnovers, all in the first half!

And it occurred to me. This team, and its newfound defensive identity, needs a nickname.

So, with Jaelen House leading the vastly improved, high-pressure Lobo defense, I came up with this: The Team of Steal.

Whether or not anyone actually buys into that name, there's no denying this team has become a very tough defensive unit most nights and a steal-dominant one since Jaelen House returned from his early season injury that cost him two months of practice and 5-plus games.

The Lobos' climb in the national rankings for steals per game continues since House's return.


—120 / 12.0 (10 games)


—36 / 7.2 (5 games)


—156 / 10.4 (15 games)

—No. 1 Mountain West (2nd place UNLV is at 8.0)

—No. 11 nationally (out of 363 Division I teams)

And while House had a crazy five steals in the first half alone and the Lobos had 16 of them in the game, he wasn't alone.

Jamal Mashburn Jr., everyone's punching bag when they want to criticize UNM's defense, had three steals on Saturday. Nelly Junior Joseph, who has become a steal machine of late, had three more on Saturday, a tough task for a 6-foot-10 center.

In all, seven of nine Lobos who played on Saturday had at least one steal and four had multiple steals.

Let's bullet point some steal notes for the Lobos from Saturday's game:

—16 steals is a UNM season high.

—16 steals is 2nd most for UNM against a Mountain West opponent behind only the Mountain West vs. Mountain West record 19 steals the Lobos had against Colorado State on March 5, 2005.

—UNM has had double-digit steals in seven of the past eight games.

—16 steals was a Wyoming opponent season high.

—UNM's 7th double-digit steals game, tied for 3rd most in Mountain West era (12 is season high set in both 2019-20 and 2004-05).

Now, stealing the ball is clearly a great defensive accomplishment. It ends an opponent's possession without them scoring, which is the best outcome of a defensive possession you can get.

But teams that steal the ball a lot aren't always great defensive teams. Some teams that utilize high-pressure, steal-happy defensive schemes can often get into foul trouble or get burned at the back end of their defense when the high-risk gambles going for steals don't always pay off.

(I'm looking at you, Reggie Theus-coached Bethune Cookman, which ranks fourth in the nation in steal rate, but 286th in defensive efficiency according to KenPom).

But the Lobos are stealing the ball AND defending at a much better level than last season.

In fact, UNM is one of just four teams that can lay claim to having a top 10 steal rate in the country and be ranked in the Top 30 win defensive efficiency, per KenPom:

Houston Cougars

—17.2 Stl% (No. 1 in country)

—85.1 AdjDE (No. 1 in country)

Iowa State Cyclones

—16.4 Stl% (No. 2 in country)

—92.5 AdjDE (No. 5 in country)

Virginia Cavaliers

—13.8 Stl% (No. 9 in country)

—94.9 AdjDE (No. 19 in country)

UNM Lobos

—13.8 Stl% (No. 10 in country)

—95.8 AdjDE (No. 26 in country)

The gamer...

Here is the game story I filed at the buzzer on Saturday night from the Pit:

Shaq Diesel makes a Pit stop...

You know the stars come out when the Wyoming Cowboys and UNM Lobos square off in Mountain West play.

Saturday, as much of the customary roar as there was when the Lobos ran down the Pit ramp for the game, there was also a pretty loud, though slow starting roar from the announced crowd of 12,611 when fans realized Shaquille O'Neal was walking down the Pit ramp to take a seat at courtside.

The Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer, a friend of UNM Athletic Director Eddie Nuñez through past ties both have at LSU, came to the Pit to watch the first half of Saturday's game before heading over to Revel Entertainment where he had a gig as DJ Diesel (yes, the many talents of Shaq include his being a somewhat touring DJ).

Now, he wasn't the first in his family to be at a Lobos game this season, nor was Shaq in the Pit for the first time himself for a basketball game.

His son, Shaqir O'Neal, plays for Texas Southern and had 8 points, 2 rebounds and a steal against the Lobos in UNM's Nov. 6 season opening win over the Tigers.

And, as colleague Sean Reider pointed out, Shaq played in the Pit back when the NBA would occasionally make preseason stops in Albuquerque in 1999. Here's Sean's posting of the article written by my former colleague, and Lobos hoops beat predecessor, Mark Smith from his last visit to the Pit in 1999:

Oh, and let's not forget the other major tie Shaq has with the Lobos.

He and UNM Lobo coach Richard Pitino, as everyone knows well, were once co-stars in the 1994 hit Blue Chips.

Well, Shaq was one of the stars. Pitino was an extra sitting behind a team bench in one of the scenes that features his dad, Rick Pitino, coaching in a game.

Neither Pitino, nor O'Neal, won an Academy Award for their work in the film.

Coooooooop, tooooooo!

Shaq was only one of two former Los Angeles Laker NBA champions in the house on Saturday night. Lobo legend Michael Cooper got some love, too, being honored at center court during a first half media timeout, before giving Shaq some love...

A number to know: 23

Wyoming committed a season-high 23 turnovers on Saturday, oddly enough four days after committing a season-low 5 turnovers in a win over San Jose State.

Another number to know: 6

UNM's 6 turnovers was a season low vs. a Division I opponent (UNM also had just six turnovers vs. Eastern New Mexico University on Dec. 29).

And how did they get to that number of six? The final turnover came with 00:01 seconds left when the Lobos took an intentional shot clock violation rather than shoot again with the game already decided, 77-60.

A shot clock violation goes down in the books as a "team" turnover.

One more number to know: +17

UNM's +17 turnover margin was its best of the season. The Lobos' previous best was +11.

Wyoming's -17 turnover margin was its worst of the season. The Cowboy's previous worst was -8.

UNM's season turnover margin of +6.33 leads the Mountain West and ranks 4th out of 363 Division I teams nationally.

House in order...

The headline of my gameday preview in Saturday's Journal was: "As Lobos return home, they hope to keep their House in order."

The gist of it was that the Lobos simply need their senior point guard on the court as much as possible.

That's not a shocker, of course. Between his injuries and occasionally his emotionally-charged style of play that can lead to technicals, foul trouble or just being a target of game officials in general, House's absences from the team have become painfully noticeable for the Lobos for two big reasons: his own contributions and his team's generally lower-level of energy when he's not on the court.

But Saturday, House noticeably worked to keep his cool even when disagreeing with fouls our calls he didn't agree with. And considering House both got called for a very rare lane violation on a technical free throw that could have set him off a bit and had an awful shooting night (3-of-15 and 0-of-5 from the 3-point line), there were moments many players may have let their frustrations get the better of them.

But not House. Not on Saturday, anyway.

The result? The Lobos outscored the Cowboys by 18 in the minutes House played, the second best plus/minus figure of any player on either team (Mustapha Amzil had a game-best plus-19).

How about these plus/minus figures for House in his last four games:

+18 Saturday vs. Wyoming (2nd best for UNM)

+10 Tuesday at Colorado State (best for UNM)

+28 Dec. 29 vs. Eastern New Mexico (2nd best for UNM)

+15 Dec. 20 vs. UC Irvine (best for UNM)

And as for those 5 steals on Saturday, he moved past another Lobo legend on the all-time steals list:

UNM Top 10 career steals

1. Kelvin Scarborough — 235

2. Hunter Greene — 203

3. Phil Smith — 197

4. Kendall Williams — 186

5. Lamont Long — 184

6. Jaelen House — 183

7. Willie Banks — 182

8. Charles Smith — 178

9. Darrell McGee — 168

10. Dairese Gary — 162

Those jerseys!

As reported last week, with the permission of the Pueblo of Zia, the UNM Lobos men's and women's teams wore special yellow Zia symbol/state flag-themed jerseys on Saturday as part of a statehood day celebration of New Mexico's becoming a state on Jan. 6, 1912.

They also had special "Land of Enchantment" shooting shirts.

Those costly freebies...

(Sorry, this is a long one)

First off, I'll tell you that I'm pretty sure I've never seen a free throw shooter at the college level or NBA level called for a lane violation, especially on a technical foul shot when nobody else was there.

That is until Saturday night when Jaelen House was called for one after hitting the first of two technical free throws in the second half of Saturday's game against Wyoming.

But then again, I haven't been around basketball as much as some people, so I asked Richard Pitino about that call after the game, knowing that as a coach he wasn't going to get into critical comments about officiating, but he did say this:

"Never," Pitino said. "I told my staff I've never seen that. Never. Maybe he did, I don't know. I wasn't even looking. But I've never seen that."

Now, onto the more troubling trend the Lobos had this past week as Mountain West play opened up.

They missed 15 free throws — seven of them on the road at No. 13 Colorado State which could have changed the entire dynamic of how the final minutes were played if they had been better at the line.


—AT COLORADO STATE: 4-11 (36.4%)

—VS WYOMING: 14-22 (63.6%)

—TOTAL: 18-33 (54.5%)

Now, the team hasn't been that bad all season, nor the previous two seasons:


—2023-24: 65.9% (10th out of 11 in Mountain West)

—2022-23: 73.9% (5th out of 11 in Mountain West)

—2021-22: 75.0% (2nd out of 11 in Mountain West)

But this week, it was bad. And all season, it's generally been bad.

So when JT Topping started the free throw night off with an 0-for-2 showing at the free throw line, I couldn't help but think it must have been a shout out to the Pit's guest of honor, Shaquille O'Neal...

I asked Pitino after the game if its to the point he talks with the team about the free throws or would doing so only compound the problem by getting it in their heads that they are struggling far more at the line than in previous seasons?

"No, we just work on it. You know, I don't want to make a bigger deal of it," Pitino said. "The hard thing is when you're playing at home is (loud groan sound) every time you miss a free throw, which every fan base does. not just our fan base. That doesn't help. I'm not telling our fans how to act, I love our fans. I'm very, very appreciative. But yeah, you can feel the weight of the world on the shoulders a little bit."

But the Lobos free throw shooting percentage is but one of the problem.

As the team's offensive efficiency rating continues to drop (it was 24th last season in Division I basketball according to and just 65th this season), it's worth noting the Lobos simply aren't getting to the free throw line like last season, when they parlayed getting to the free throw line a lot with actually hitting a high percentage.

UNM FT RATE (fta/fga)

—2023-24: 36.3% (97th nationally)

—2022-23: 39.1% (25th nationally)


—2023-24: 19.2% (168th nationally)

—2022-23: 21.5% (32nd nationally)

Part of the problem has been Jaelen House and Jamal Mashburn Jr. missing a combined 12 games this season. That duo and the absence of Morris Udeze were three of the best players in the entire country at drawing fouls last season. Udeze is now playing overseas and, frankly, House and Mashburn just aren't scoring as much at the line this season, though it should be noted both House and Mashburn are actually drawing more fouls per 40 minutes than they did a season ago.

So, here's my expert analysis on the subject that I'm sure you've all come to know and expect from me.

The Lobos would be much better off if they got to the free throw line more AND hit more of their free throws.

You're welcome, Richard Pitino.


The announced attendance of Saturday's Wyoming at New Mexico game in the Pit: 12,611

Speaking of attendance...

I wrote a story earlier in the week about UNM's ticket sales this season being up through nonconference play, bolstered plenty by an increase in the season ticket base.

Average nonconference attendance:

—2023-24: 8,159

—2022-23: 7,330

Season ticket base for men's basketball:

—2023-24: 11,579

—2022-23: 9,542

And here's the article from earlier in the week in the Journal:

One more thing about attendance...

There were two sell outs on Saturday in the Mountain West and one in the middle of the week.

After their final Four Run, and knowing that they hold just 12,414 in Viejas Arena, we know there is a decent chance the Aztecs sell out all nine of their home games this season (3,000 go to students each game).

That combined with Utah State getting one on Saturday, the Pit good for a few this season, and nationally-ranked Colorado State surely able to get a couple sell outs at Moby Arena, I ask you this...

Will the Mountain West have over or under 17.5 sell outs in league play?

Running count: 3

—San Diego State 2

—Utah State 1

Injury update...

There were some available Lobos who did not play Saturday as a coaches decision, but the only injured Lobo who was not available to play was Braden Appelhans, who hurt his ankle this week. Pitino said he is "day-to-day" moving forward.

Tru Washington, who had been sick the past couple weeks, as fans near the Lobos bench in Fort Collins know well from Tuesday night, was back on Saturday and played will with 8 points on 4-of-5 shooting to go along with 2 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 turnover, 1 steal and 1 block.

Mustapha back to steady play...

Mustapha Amzil, after plenty of early season struggles, has now had three really solid games in the past four. And Saturday, he did so with his mother (Katri) and sister (Safia) in Albuquerque visiting him from Finland.

Amzil's past 4 games

—Saturday vs. Wyoming: 9 pts (1-2 3FG), 4 reb, 2 stls, +19 (team-best +/-)

—Tuesday at Colorado State: 2 pts (0-1 3FG), 3 reb ,1 stl

—Dec. 29 vs. ENMU: 11 pts (1-2 3FG), 2 reb, 1 ast

—Dec. 20 vs. UC Irvine: 11 pts (1-4 3FG), 4 reb, 1 blk

And he also had a pretty funny answer to a question earlier in the week by a media member who asked him what it's like to walk down the Pit ramp:'

Video: Pitino and Dent postgame...

Here is the video I recorded of Richard Pitino and Donovan Dent talking to media after Saturday's game:


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


+19 Mustapha Amzil (19:46)

+18 Jaelen House (31:21)

+14 Donovan Dent (31:56)

+11 Nelly Junior Joseph (25:02)

+9 Jamal Mashburn Jr. (30:33)

+8 Jemarl Baker Jr. (12:54)

+7 JT Toppin (25:34)

+2 Tru Washington (13:16)

-3 Isaac Mushila (9:38)


+2 Mason Walters (24:00)

-1 Caden Powell (19:34)

-5 Oleg Kojenets (7:12)

-7 Akuel Kot (31:38)

-16 Sam Griffin (38:36)

-17 Brendan Wenzel (40:00)

-18 Kobe Newton (15:24)

-23 Cam Manyawu (23:36)

Line 'em up...

The UNM Lobos used 9 players Saturday night and 15 lineup combinations. The Wyoming Cowboys used 8 players and had 12 lineup combinations.

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


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



—NOTE: Well, it's usually a pretty bad sign when your starting five, and the lineup combination that played 13 minutes more than any other lineup combination in the game, gets outscored. On Saturday, though, the Lobos won by 17 points despite the highly unusual reality of their most used lineup combination being one of its worst in the game.

The big part of this was the really good run the Cowboys had to start the second half (a 13-4 run that cut the halftime lead of 39-22 down to 43-35 with 16:18 left in the game when Richard Pitino had seen enough and called a timeout).


—WHO: Jaelen House, Donovan Dent, Jamal Mashburn Jr., Mustapha Amzil, Nelly Junior Joseph



—NOTE: The swap of Mustapha Amzil for JT Toppin was the only change from the starting lineup and things ran much more smoothly, at least for the brief 3:24 this combination played together.


—WHO: Jamal Mashburn Jr., Tru Washington, Jemarl Baker Jr., Isaac Mushila, Mustapha Amzil



—NOTE: Welp, it was just 1:45. And for all I know, that was the first 1:45 this combination has been used all season. I don't recall seeing it, and there was nothing special about it on Saturday.

Meanwhile, in Logan...

They Stormed the Stew!

OK, that's not really a thing (yet), but with Utah State having already announced that later this season they will be officially naming the court at the Dee Glen Spectrum after the program's legendary coach Stew Morrill, I'm really hoping sellouts there can earn the social hashtag #StuffTheStew and court storms can referred to as #StormTheStew.

Saturday, the under-the-radar-no-more Aggies beat No. 13 Colorado State, 77-72, and surely earned themselves on Monday a whole lot of new AP Top 25 votes (they had none in this past week's poll).

Around the Mountain...

There was on Mountain West hoops games on Friday night and four more on Saturday, wrapping up a fun first week of league play. Here's a look at the weekend results and the peek at the midweek slate of games to come:


—Boise State 78, San Jose State 69


—San Diego State 72, UNLV 61

—Utah State 77, No. 13 Colorado State 72

—Nevada 72, Fresno State 57

—New Mexico 77, Wyoming 60


—No. 13 Colorado State at Boise State, 7 p.m. MT (TheMW)

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

—Air Force at Nevada, 7 p.m. PT/8 p.m. PT (The MW)

—New Mexico at UNLV, 8:30 p.m. MT (FS1)

—San Diego State at San Jose State, 8 p.m. PT/9 p.m. MT (CBS Sports Network)

Mountain West standings...

Here are the league's standings through Saturday's games:

2-0 San Diego State

2-0 Utah State

1-0 Boise State

1-0 Nevada

1-1 Colorado State

1-1 New Mexico

1-1 Wyoming

0-1 Air Force

0-1 UNLV

0-2 Fresno State

0-2 San Jose State

Meanwhile, earlier in the day...

Colleague Ken Sickenger covered the UNM women's game against Boise State from Saturday afternoon. Here is his article from that game, which the Lobos lost, 64-56:

Stats and stats...

Here is the final stat sheet from Saturday's game: New Mexico 77, Wyoming 60

And here is the digital version of the game stats: New Mexico 77, Wyoming 60

Grammer's Guesses...

I'm really, REALLY good at picking games.

The Guesses go 1-3 on Saturday and I'm a very impressive 2-7 on the season picking Mountain West games against the spread.

My daughter's coin flip picks went 2-2 on Saturday and she's now 5-4 on the season, and again grounded.

Up next...

For New Mexico: The Lobos play at UNLV on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. PT/8:30 p.m. MT. (FS1)

For Wyoming: The Cowboys play at Utah State on Tuesday at 7 p.m. MT. (

Schedule and results...

UNM Lobos men's basketball 2023-24 schedule/results...

Some pics...