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Notes from Memphis: The cherry and silver lining behind beloved Lobo Josiah Allick's transfer to Nebraska

Mar. 21—MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Home is where Josiah Allick's heart is. Home just wasn't Albuquerque.

But the Lobo love and appreciation for his one season at UNM hasn't dipped much, if at all, over the past season since the 6-foot-8 power forward transferred back home to play for the Nebraska Cornhuskers, who are the No. 8 seed in the South Region playing No. 9 Texas A&M on Friday in Memphis — the same location, though in a different pod of games — as the Lobos.

"I still love and miss them all," Allick said on Thursday, referring to Lobo fans, many of whom were heartbroken when he chose to leave the program last year. "Maybe in a different world, I would have stuck around this year."

Added UNM coach Richard Pitino when asked by a Nebraska reporter about Allick, "You were disappointed when he left, but to see him go back to his hometown where he's from and now being in the NCAA Tournament is something that I'm sure is amazing for him."

But, while Allick was able to be closer to family, including a sister who is a star on Nebraska's national runner up volleyball team, there has been a rather important (cherry and) silver lining to his moving on.

In his absence, 6-foot-9 forward J.T. Toppin stepped into the "4" spot in the starting rotation and has already strung together one of the best freshman seasons in UNM and Mountain West history.

Toppin was already committed to UNM when Allick was still on the team. If both of them were on the team, would the freshman still have been flourished?

"Probably not. So good thing Josiah left," Pitino joked. "I mean, I think that's just the whole part of the deal is you see what we got, we're going to figure it out. Whenever this tournament is done, what we're going to have stay, leave, then you figure it out from there. ... To JT's credit, he took advantage of an opportunity and hopefully he continues to do that."

Toppin is averaging 12.5 points, 9.0 rebounds, 1.9 blocks and 1.1 steals while winning the Mountain West media poll Freshman of the Year and coaches poll co-Freshman of the Year awards, also setting program record for offensive rebounds and double-doubles by a freshman.

Allick, playing in the Big Ten with Nebraska, is averaging 7.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 23.6 minutes per game. He said being back in the Midwest, he got an understanding of how hard it is to keep up with late-night Mountain West tip times, but still kept an eye on the Lobos.

And Toppin in particular.

"I've loved watching, JT this year," Allick said. "He's been a hell of a talent. Obviously I wish things might have unfolded a different way, but I think me not being there has been exponentially beneficial for his development this year, in just how he's been able to step up, and really establish himself as one of the best freshmen in the country."

Allick did add that while Toppin likely wouldn't have played as much early, his talent is too much to think he wouldn't have made his way to the court even if he'd stayed around.

"Over the course of season, he would have shown out," Allick said.

JACK KNOWS: Jack Pitino, the 9-year-old son of UNM coach Richard Pitino, picked the Lobos to advance to the Elite Eight — making his bracket public on a video available on ABQJournal.com.

He's not alone. According to the Associated Press, UNM was the most popular double-digit pick to advance to the Sweet 16 on 14 percent of brackets submitted to CBS Sports.

But, wait. The Lobo ball boy and son of the coach doesn't have them winning the whole thing?

"I didn't watch his (video) yet, but it's us against Jack," Richard Pitino joked. "That's going to be the message in the locker room. Let's prove him wrong. If we do go to an Elite Eight, which will be obviously very, very hard, but that will be the sole message, let's prove Jack wrong."

BUILT LIKE A HOUSE: Pitino was asked how he would describe Jaelen House to those around the country who haven't seen the Lobos' senior guard play yet.

"Unbelievable, endless amounts of energy," Pitino said. "Somebody asked me, was I concerned with four games in four days (at the Mountain West Tournament), and I made the comment I'm not concerned about No. 10. He will not be tired. It doesn't matter — plays so very, very hard. Plays with amazing emotion, spirit.

"His leadership has gotten substantially better over the years. He's commanding huddles. He's commanding the locker room. Obviously different for an NCAA Tournament, but he (is not afraid) to engage in the crowd. That does not affect him in any way. Probably motivates him.

"So, he's the type of player that belongs in this amazing tournament."

BUILT LIKE A HOUSTON: Meanwhile, No. 1 seed Houston, a team many are picking to win the whole thing, is admittedly not built to win four games in four days like UNM just did — not with its rugged, physical style of play.

Fortunately for Kelvin Sampson and the South Region's No. 1 seeded Cougars, who went 2-1 in last week's Big 12 Tournament, teams in the NCAA Tournament don't play more than two games in a week.

"Going into the Big 12 Tournament, I thought we were okay for the TCU game. Texas Tech game, I knew we were getting wore down a little bit. Our team's not built to play three games in three days," Sampson said. "After we beat Texas Tech, I knew that was kind of it for us.

"Then when we walked on that court Saturday against Iowa State, that wasn't a fair fight. ... But the game on Saturday was of little or no consequence to me because they knew what was most important."

NOT SLEEPING ON THE LOBOS: Jon Rothstein, the CBS Sports personality, has been high on the Lobos all season. And he's not backing off now as he gave the Journal a scouting report on what to expect from the Clemson matchup.

"Contrast in styles. The faster the game goes, the better chance that New Mexico has to win," Rothstein said. "But New Mexico, like a lot of other Mountain West teams still playing, have something to prove. You can't be satisfied in terms of perception of the league with just getting six teams in. This league was disrespected on Selection Sunday, and these next couple of games are gonna decide what happens."

SALT LAKE BLUES: It wasn't an upset like last time, but Steve Alford's NCAA Tournament trip to Salt Lake City this year with the Nevada Wolf Pack had the same result: One game, one stunning defeat.

After No. 7 Dayton used a 24-4 run to rally and beat No. 10 Nevada, senior guard Kenan Blackshear gave as honest an answer as one could give about what had just happened, albeit with his taking a disproportionate amount of the blame.

"Just a meltdown really," he said. "Can't really put it into words really. I take responsibility for it. It's on me."