It might feel like a punch in the gut.
It certainly looks like one.
In fact, that’s pretty much what it is, considering everything the coaches and the school did to get him an additional year of eligibility — but it’s not the end of the world.
Watching Anthony Mathis drift off into the sunset with his coveted 3-point shot in tow is a painful thing for Lobo basketball fans, but it’s unrealistic to say the team will fall apart without him. Life will definitely go on and, in many ways, flourish with him out of the picture.
Let’s face it, Mathis was a liability on defense and he was rarely the guy you wanted handling the ball when facing any kind of man-to-man pressure. A natural shooting guard, he spent all of last season playing out of position at the point and his assist-to-turnover ratio of 1-1 was pedestrian, at best.
He was never a facilitator. He was never a playmaker.
He made bombs and brought the crowd to its feet with shots from downtown, but he was a key figure in the Lobos’ two biggest problems last season: Turnovers and unreliable guard play.
How many times did we hear head coach Paul Weir talk about the Lobos being vulnerable against smaller teams with athletic, quick guards? Does UNLV, Colorado State, New Mexico State, North Texas, San Diego State and Fresno State come to mind?
And how many times did we see UNM struggle against teams with dominant big men? Not nearly as many because the infusion of Carlton Bragg and Corey Manigault gave the Lobos a solid post presence in a system that realized too late that the emphasis was on its guards and not all-around balance.
With a true freshman and an inexperienced junior college player as the only true point guards, Weir was compelled to move Mathis from the 2 to the point with largely “meh” results. It took nearly all season for Keith McGee and Drue Drinnon to settle in, but by then the postseason was a pipe dream and the season was lost.
The team’s complete inability to work the ball into the paint was painful to watch. For Mathis, a shoot-first-and-stay-outside-the-line kind of player, it almost seemed impossible. Pit crowds would groan every time a wayward entry pass drifted into the wrong spot and led to a bad shot or turnover.
True, Mathis did lead the team in scoring the last two years and his ability to drain the 3-ball gave UNM the kind of long-range bomber never seen before.
He had the ability to put up huge numbers in short bursts, hitting shots from well beyond an imaginary NBA line several feet beyond the one actually painted onto the floor.
“Anthony doesn’t worry about lines,” said his now-former teammate, JaQuan Lyle. “He can make them from anywhere he wants.”
The addition of Lyle, Zane Martin and J.J. Caldwell to a backcourt that already has McGee and Drinnon means it’s not a death blow to lose Mathis. The Lobos needed to shoot 29 3-pointers a game two years ago. They didn’t necessarily need to attempt 26 a game last year.
They certainly don’t need to open the bombing range next year.
Make no mistake, Mathis will be missed. He was easy to root for, easy to fall in love with thanks to his rags-to-riches background that saw him rise from the black hole of Craig Neal’s bench to star status under Weir.
His friendly demeanor made him a favorite not with just the fans, but the media as well. He ended his final press conference (or so we thought) in March by walking around and shaking every media member’s hand and thanking them for their work.
He’s a class act that will make any team he’s with better. Whether it’s Oregon or Florida, UConn or USC, he’ll have a passionate Lobo fan base that will always have a soft spot for him.
Unless it’s Nevada. Or New Mexico State.
In that case, all bets are off.