Mountain West title challengers New Mexico face SWAC title favorites Texas Southern.
Richard Pitino’s Lobos enter season opener with plenty of hype, their first test of the season is repeat visitor to the big dance Texas Southern.
WHO: New Mexico (0-0, 0-0 in the MWC) vs. Texas Southern (0-0, 0-0 in the SWAC)
WHEN: Monday, November 6th, 7:30 PM MT, 8:30 PM CT
WHERE: University Arena aka “The Pit”, Albuquerque, NM
STREAM: Mountain West Network
Line: KenPom, The Lobos are favored by 16 Points
The excitement has returned to New Mexico basketball and in turn the city of Albuquerque. Lobo basketball is the main show in town and when the program is good, the Pit crowd shows out. Just look at last season’s expedited turnaround which saw a 14-0 start to the season as the nation’s last remaining undefeated team. Not to mention the program’s return to the AP Top-25 for the first time in nearly a decade. This brought 228,000 fans to the historic Pit in 2022-2023, including five games with over 15,000 fans in attendance.
All of this led to head coach Richard Pitino receiving a contract extension that gave him an annual pay bump ($1.1 million next season) and locked in his job as the Lobos’ lead man until 2027-2028.
The third year head coach turned the New Mexico program into a competitive force again in an ever-growing competitive Mountain West Conference. And according to the head man, maybe a bit ahead of schedule given the coaches lackluster first season in Albuquerque in which he went 13-19 (5-12 in MWC, 9th place finish).
Though along with the hype that has returned to New Mexico, so has has the expectations. Both are high, sky high in fact after a successful offseason that saw the Lobos go shopping in the transfer portal. They emerged with quality commitments from Nelly Junior-Joseph (Iona), Jemarl Baker Jr. (Fresno State), Mustapha Amzil (Dayton), Isaac Mushila (Texas A&M-Corpus Christi) and Deraji Agbaosi (North Alabama).
To match a revamped roster Coach Pitino released the team’s non-conference schedule back on October 3rd. A tad late because of the difficulty he encountered when attempting to build an attractive non-conference schedule. At least as far as the NCAA Tournament selection committee is concerned.
The 2023-2024 schedule could be considered both a win & loss in that regard. With big brand high majors lacking but several quality games against teams favored to win their conferences locked in. And Monday’s season opener at home against predicted SWAC favorites Texas Southern is a perfect example of this.
The Tigers may be the perfect test for what could be a short staffed Lobo squad. With star guard Jaelen House and impact transfers Jemarl Baker Jr. and Isaac Mushila absence from their team’s two exhibition wins and still question marks for the season opener. Texas Southern will be a quality opponent for some younger Lobos to get their feet wet against a D-I tournament team, here’s why.
Texas Southern Breakdown
The Tigers are coming off of their 3rd straight NCAA Tournament appearance after an 84-61 loss to eventual tourney darlings Fairleigh Dickinson in the East Region’s first four. That marks trips to the big dance in three out of the five seasons former Nevada Wolf Pack associate head coach Johnny Jones has been in charge of the program.
This is the appeal of the Tigers program, not a 100% guarantee to run the table of the SWAC (14-21, 7-11 8th last season). But a culture in a program that gives opportunity go dancing nearly every season. And for some of the regions most sought after transfers, that was enough to join the team for a chance to do it all again this season.
Aside from losing their leading scorer Davon Barnes to northern neighbor Sam Houston State, Texas Southern were big time winners in the transfer portal. Securing commits from backcourt members Johnathan Cisse (Incarnate Word), Deon Stroud (Fresno State/Eastern Washington) and big men Josh Farmer (UTSA), Kenny Hunter (Louisiana Tech) & Jahmar Young Jr. (SMU). This mix of battle hardened returners and a quality transfer class should be a tougher than expected first game of the season.
Players to Watch:
G Donovan Dent-New Mexico
As of media availability last week, starting point guard Jaelen House could miss the Lobos’ season opener against the Texas Southern Tigers on Monday night. But worry not, as this may be the perfect opportunity to witness returning sophomore floor general Donovan Dent in what many expect to be his future role in the starting lineup a year early.
The 6-2 point guard was one of the more exciting and developed freshman to dawn the cherry and silver in several years. Dent displayed an advanced ability to attack the rim in his first year in college basketball. Which led to season averages of 5.6 PPG, 2.3 APG, 2.0 RPG & 0.9 SPG in 18.5 mpg as the first man off of the bench. He’s taken on a bigger role in House’s absence , averaging 24.5 PPG, 5.0 APG & 2.5 SPG in New Mexico’s two exhibition wins.
G PJ Henry-Texas Southern
Henry is the SWAC Preseason Player of the Year after help lead his squad to a conference tournament championship as the 8th seed. Including two wins against co-regular season champions Alcorn St. & Grambling, and posting 18.7 points a game while shooting 40.7% from deep in three wins.
Coach Jones will lean on him heavily to lead this still youthful and newly put together title contender. Henry showed he was cable to just that last season. After missing the first six games of the Tigers’ SWAC slate he returned and aided in the team’s run to a conference title. The pieces are in place for Henry to elevate his game and better elevate those around him, a matchup against sophomore Donovan Dent
Keys to the Game
For New Mexico: Halt 3-point shooting, Maximize their own 3-point shooting & Stay out of foul trouble
The Tigers made most of their money inside the arc last season, with a long history of impact players in the front court. This season should be no different with the additions of Farmer, Hunter & Young. The Lobos will need to stay out of foul trouble as Texas Southern attempted twenty free throws a game last season, good enough for 69th in the country.
Now this strength balanced out a near non-existent game beyond the arc (27.7%). But, that is where Jonathan Cisse comes in. The 6-1 combo guard averaged 16.0 PPG last season at Incarnate Word and his 40.9% on 137 3-PT attempts is a big reason why. He’ll give the Tigers a more balanced attack from the perimeter.
An attack New Mexico will need to defend the perimeter as they might not have the depth or experience to properly defend the post. While also knocking down their own attempts if their frontcourt still hasn’t found their footing yet on opening night.
Prediction: New Mexico 80, Texas Southern 72
If the Lobos have a full healthy roster on Monday night, I can see the 16-point KenPom prediction holding true. But that’s likely not going to be the case and we can’t forget transfer big man Nelly Junior-Joseph’s still getting adjusted to a late start after visa delays all offseason.
Given what we have seen in recent lineups, I think New Mexico will put a competitive team on the floor regardless of injuries. I think they’ll secure the win but may be in for a bigger fight than anticipated.
Larry Muniz covers college basketball as a writer for Mountain West Wire and WAC Hoops Digest. Also as a co-host of the college basketball podcast “Hoops Talk W/Jay & Larry”. He is also a USWBA Member.