ALBUQUERQUE — The latest seismic shift to hit the University of New Mexico men’s basketball team is sending the coaching staff back to the drawing board.
In short, the Lobos are going to have to re-invent themselves heading into the final 13 games of the regular season following Sunday night’s dismissal of center Carlton Bragg.
Kicked off the team following his arrest on suspicion of DWI early Sunday morning, the 6-foot-10 senior’s absence leaves a huge hole — literally and figuratively — in the middle of the lineup.
Bragg was the team’s leading rebounder and the anchor of the team’s philosophy at both ends of the court. He and roommate JaQuan Lyle were the oldest players on the roster and together they formed the emotional and schematic heartbeat of the entire team.
Together, they kept their teammates grounded, taught them to play with confidence and poise and were a cool as cucumbers when the pressure was at its greatest. Head coach Paul Weir has praised his team time and again for holding it together when games were tight and things weren’t working as smoothly as they’d hoped.
All that could be coming to an end thanks to the schematic redo with Bragg out. This year’s Lobos were built from the inside out, using Bragg and power forward Corey Manigault to solidify the post while surrounding them with taller, quicker guards like Lyle, Vance Jackson and Makuach Maluach.
Weir’s approach was simple: Protect the paint, control the game from the inside and dare opponents to beat them with the 3-pointer because crashing the rim was never going to be easy.
So far, so good.
UNM is off to a 15-3 start, is 4-1 and tied for second in the Mountain West, and undefeated through its first 12 games in The Pit— its best start at home since joining the conference 20 years ago. The 14 straight wins at home is the 12th longest streak in the history of The Pit.
Before the team’s first game, Weir had the players write their top 15 down. One of the few they all agreed on was taking care of business at home, to protect The Pit.
“A good portion of these guys, even they knew going into the season we really wanted to protect this arena,” Weir said. “Not only for ourselves but obviously for our amazing fans.”
That becomes tougher without the man in the middle. Bragg was averaging a double-double and his 155 rebounds through 15 games equate to more than 25 percent of the team’s total to this point.
Toss in the sudden shortage of guards, and UNM has a problem.
The team started the season with five players capable of playing at the point guard spot. That number was down to two in the last game against Air Force as Lyle and Zane Martin were left alone to handle the ball for 40 minutes.
The first domino to fall was sophomore Drue Drinnon, who quit the team before the holidays. Next came the Dec. 22 suspension of junior JJ Caldwell, the team’s starter and one of the top assist men in the Mountain West.
The latest was junior Keith McGee, who struggled to find playing time early in the season and then missed the last two games, one for a death in the family and the other for showing up late and riding the bench as a disciplinary measure.
Heading into this week’s road swing through Colorado State (Wednesday) and UNLV (Saturday), the focus falls to Manigault in the middle. When Bragg was serving a recent three-game suspension, the 6-9 senior logged an average of more than 34 minutes a game when he typically played between 20-22 minutes when Bragg was available.
It’s reasonable to assume most of Bragg’s production will fall to Jackson, the wildly talented but inconsistent 6-9 junior. His numbers rose dramatically when Bragg went out, an indication that Weir’s offense flows more freely when Manigault is the only option in the post.