ALBUQUERQUE — Get your popcorn ready, the show’s about to start.
If Carton Bragg is right, the University of New Mexico men’s basketball team will be fast, deeper and more dangerous than at any point in the recent past.
“We’re going to shock a lot of people,” he said before Monday’s practice in The Pit. “We’re going to be real fast, for sure.”
The Lobos need to do something to improve. They’re just four games over .500 the last five seasons and finished with a losing record in a wildly disappointing 2018-19 season. It has put the team and head coach Paul Weir on the hot seat.
The Lobos will certainly be deeper in the backcourt with the addition of guards JaQuan Lyle, J.J. Caldwell and the feisty Zane Martin. Bragg and Corey Manigault will hold down the fort in the paint with a slew of others battling for spots at shooting guard and forward.
On paper, UNM looks as good as it has in years — but Bragg will be the first to tell you that doesn’t mean a thing.
“Expectations don’t change for us, just grind and go hard each and every day in practice,” he said. “It’s going to be more extending the floor, me shooting the 3, doing a lot of things on the offensive glass and the defensive end.”
Did the 6-10 center with NBA aspirations say he’ll be … shooting the 3-ball?
He said if he has his way, the 3-point craze that has turned basketball into a jump-shooting free for all the last decade will soon include him. He has been working on taking transition 3s in practice and during individual workouts, extending his game beyond the usual 10-foot radius he usually operates in as the team’s rim protector and low-post presence.
“Big surprise,” he said with a toothy grin. “You’ll be surprised the way I shoot it.”
The last time Bragg made a 3-pointer in a real game was March 10 … of 2016. It came at the 4:46 mark of the second half in the Big 12 Tournament quarterfinals against Kansas State, a game Bragg and the Kansas Jayhawks won comfortably at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo. He was a true freshman that year, capping a season in which he was 4-for-7 from beyond the arc.
He is 0-for-10 ever since, including the half dozen misses in his first run with the Lobos last year. The last time he made a bomb, not a single player or coach currently on the UNM campus was part of the Lobos program. Weir was hired in April 2017.
Weir has talked about developing Bragg beyond the confines of the paint. To that end he has given his big man the freedom to tinker with spotting up for the occasional long-range shot.
It’s all part of Bragg’s farewell tour as a college player. A senior who followed a long and twisting path to Albuquerque — he started at Kansas, transferred to Arizona State and then wound up at UNM — he said he’s soaking in all that a senior year has to offer.
“This is my last time, my senior year so it’s emotional for me,” he said. “I just take every day like it’s my last and that’s what I’m trying to do as a leader on this team.”
Bragg and Lyle are roommates and the two oldest players on the team. He said the two of them have taken it upon themselves to be leaders both on and off the floor. Together they’ve also spent countless hours in practice working on their outside shots.
Lyle said he has become a more well-rounded player after suffering a torn Achilles tendon last season. Bragg said he has become a more versatile player at the same time, taking his back-to-the-basket approach and developing a jumper.
Asked if Weir was giving him the green light to let of fly, Bragg pumped the brakes just a little bit.
“I wouldn’t say the green light, just the confidence to shoot it,” he said. “Just if I knock it down, knock it down.”
If you’re counting at home, it’s only three months until the start of college basketball’s official start to preseason practices.