ALBUQUERQUE — Right around the time the Mountain West Conference was taking a fire extinguisher to the rumors about losing two and four schools to rival conferences, the University of New Mexico was breaking the seal on The Pit’s doors to let in local media for a rare glimpse at the men’s basketball team.
The Lobos, who haven’t had an open practice in more than three months, started official preseason workouts Monday and used Friday’s time slot to run a full-court scrimmage for the last half hour of a 90-minute session. Just nine minutes before the 10 a.m. workout began in the Davalos Center, UNM issued a news release stating that center Valdir Manuel — just one of five returning scholarship players on coach Richard Pitino’s drastically revamped roster — had been suspended indefinitely.
Pitino declined comment on the matter after the practice, citing federal privacy laws.
He did, however, address the New Mexico-sized question mark hovering over his program. With so many new faces that literally blend into the background rather than roaming the campus as local celebrities as in years past, this year’s team is a collection of strangers to a fan base that knows next to nothing about the team.
“Well, it is like an expansion team and I think college sports is going towards that a little bit because of the transfer portal and so on,” Pitino said. “I can tell the fans that we put the names on the back of the jerseys. That is very important to fans; they keep coming up to me and asking me that. What I can tell our fans is, listen, I know that we didn’t win a lot of games last year but you want to buy a stock when it’s low. I think the sky is the limit for this team, for this program and this staff.”
From early observations: Returning guard Jeremiah Francis has trimmed about 15 pounds off his frame and says he’s feeling better than he has in years; Kansas transfer Gethro Muscadin is not only a huge talent as a 6-foot-10 forward, but he’s also the best cook on the team; Minnesota transfer Jamal Mashburn Jr. says he can beat his former NBA star dad in 1-on-1 while confirming that Muscadin, his roommate, knows his way around a kitchen.
“I can cook pretty much anything,” Muscadin said. “Rice, steak, chicken, shrimp. I can make it happen.”
As Friday’s workout unfolded, the Mountain West Conference issued a statement from its board of directors addressing rumors that charter members Colorado State and Air Force were offered a new home in the American Athletic Conference. The statement didn’t directly address any schools, but it was clear that its purpose was to quell talk of a potential purging of the league’s membership.
Fellow MWC schools San Diego State and Boise State had been rumored to be in negotiations to leave, as well.
Boise State was reported to be holding out for an invitation to the Big 12.
“Close collaboration will continue as we identify the best path forward for the Mountain West within the evolving landscape of intercollegiate athletics,” the statement read. “That will include aggressively pursuing strategic initiatives and amplifying our collective brand. We enthusiastically look forward to continuing to provide Mountain West student-athletes with world-class academic, personal growth and athletics experiences in the nation’s top Non-Autonomy Five conference.”
“I hope San Diego State leaves,” Pitino joked after Friday’s practice. “I hope all of them leave. No, it’s hard. I think we saw that coming years ago with the old Big East breaking up and now with what Oklahoma and Texas did, that rocked everybody’s world.”
He said he believes the MWC is a solid basketball conference but acknowledged that it’s not his sport that drives the boat.
“Football is king, right?” he said. “Now this town loves college basketball but football is king. That’s where all the revenue is, so can we make the Mountain West a great football conference?”
Only time will tell.
Same, too, for the story Pitino’s Lobos will reveal as the 2021-22 season quickly approaches.