ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The addition of two transfer forwards has proven to be a difference-maker for a New Mexico team that has already surpassed last season’s win total while vaulting back into the national spotlight.
That isn’t to say the team doesn’t still run through guards Jaelyn House and Jamal Mashburn Jr. They remain the leaders for the No. 21 Lobos.
Now those two have plenty of help and don’t have to resort to a jump-shooting contest from the outside. The addition of 6-foot-8 forwards Morris Udeze and Josiah Allick means the quick guards have the space to slash through the lane for layups or feed the big guys underneath for easy buckets.
“We had a bad year and we’re trying to turn this around,” said House, who is averaging 17.1 points, 5.3 assists and 2.9 steals. “We didn’t like that. We’d be in games with teams and we could just never finish it. Now we’ve got the pieces to do so.”
The transition from a perimeter-oriented team to one that can dominate the paint helped New Mexico open the season with a 14-game winning streak before Tuesday night’s loss at Fresno State. They’re already better than they were the last two seasons and back in the rankings for the first time since the 2013-14 season, also the last time the Lobos made the NCAA Tournament.
A quick look at the team’s roster was enough to sell Udeze on New Mexico.
“The pitch from the coaches for me coming in here, they don’t have any bigs and they’re in need,” said Udeze, who spent his first three seasons at Wichita State. “I looked at the depth chart and I watched film. I knew they were in need of big men. It’s made me more confident in being underneath the basket and finishing the plays.”
Udeze and Allick are scoring down low and grabbing plenty of rebounds. Udeze averages 15.7 points and 7.5 rebounds. Allick, who spent the previous three seasons at Kansas City, averages 9.4 points with a team-best 8.2 rebounds.
Their presence has opened up the court for House and Mashburn, along with role-playing guards Donovan Dent and K.J. Jenkins.
“For me, it takes a load off of me,” House said. “They can’t just sit in the gaps as much as they were last year. And for our team it helps a lot. They give us other weapons that we can use on offense and defensively, they rebound the ball, too. I’m so glad that we got them.”
The transition has been fairly seamless because of the team chemistry, Allick said.
“We have really good pieces on this team, and so if we play the right way, we can do really big things” he said. “When you’re in a situation and an atmosphere and a team like that, guys just kind of naturally click because you’re all focused on the same things, just winning.”
That goes back to the way the program is run, he said.
Coach Richard Pitino “does a great job of keeping everybody focused on what the overall goal is,” Allick said. “He’s always reiterating playing as a team and being selfless. He’s made the transition into this team and into this program easy. He never puts too much on one player, but he makes everything a team responsibility.”
Pitino said the big men are fitting in well.
“The bottom line is you have to give Morris and Josiah credit,” Pitino said. “They have come in here and they just play hard; they’re teammates. They just want to win. They compete their butts off. They never take a possession off in practice. That’s how you get integrated into a new locker room to where people gain respect for you right away.”
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