IT’S NIT TIME
Lobos face tough test in their return to postseason play
If March — be it in the NCAA Tournament or the NIT — is all about matchups, the Lobos didn’t exactly get gifted a great one for their Wednesday return to postseason play after a nine-year hiatus.
The Lobos are grateful to be playing in the NIT, earning a No. 2 seed in the 32-team tournament run by the NCAA, but what they do best is what their opponent -- WAC champion Utah Valley (25-8) -- does best, too, presenting a classic strength vs. strength sort of battle.
But nobody expected it to be easy.
“I know the regular season is much different than the postseason,” said Lobo junior guard, and Mountain West leading scorer, Jamal Mashburn, Jr. “I mean, this is my first postseason in my college career . ... We’ve got to treat it differently. This is a different focus. It’s kind of like a new start. We’re trying to go on another run — win (five) straight games. We got to be locked in for that. And we are. We’re ready to go.”
Unlike the past two months when scouting reports were full of familiar names, concepts and assignments as the Lobos (22-11) faced league teams, the NIT reverts to the point when they seemed to be at their best — facing an opponent for the first time with limited prep time for both teams.
What the Lobos will see in the Wolverines is a team that is bigger at almost every position, shares the ball (16.1 assists per game), has four players averaging doublefigure scoring, rebounds well and leads the nation in shot-blocking (225, with none of the other 363 Division I teams having more than Iona’s 189). UVU ranks third in the country in 2-point shooting percent defense, allowing teams to shoot just 42.5% on 2-point shots while the
Lobos — led by attacking guards Jaelen House and Mashburn and low-post big man Morris Udeze — predicate their offensive attack on 2-point shots.
So, is summing up Wednesday’s key matchup as simple as saying the Wolverines’ strength is taking away what the Lobos need to be at their best?
“You’re probably overanalyzing it a little bit. I think they’re a really good team,” said Lobos coach Richard Pitino. “If they sag off (Lobo players on the perimeter) and we have an ability to make 3-point shot, we need to shoot it. They do pack the paint. ... They’ve got a terrific shot blocker (All-WAC center Aziz Bandaogo, whose 2.9 blocks per game ranks third nationally), they’ve got length, they’ll rotate over. We’ve just got to play basketball the right way. But they’re really good and they’ve they built a really consistent program.”
LOOK AHEAD: The Lobos say they aren’t looking ahead, but we can. Wednesday’s winner plays the winner of Tuesday’s late-night matchup between host Colorado and Seton Hall. Should the Lobos win, they will host that opponent Sunday in the Pit.
MOUNTAIN WEST: The league got four teams in the NCAA Tournament and the Lobos as a No. 2 seed in the NIT (San Jose State is also a No. 2 seed in the pay-to-play CBI). At the end of his second season at UNM, Pitino said he’s more impressed than ever with the league’s talent.
“I think it’s the West Coast version of the Big East,” Pitino said. “That’s what I truly believe.
“Now, do we have the money and resources that the Big East has? No, we don’t. I think as our league grows and we continue to have success, hopefully those things happen. Obviously we have football, the Big East does not, which opens up a million doors for increased revenue for all of our programs.
“Everybody always wants to know, ‘Are you a mid-major?’ We are not a mid-major. Now, are we a Power 5? No, we’re not a Power 5. They certainly have the money that we don’t have. But every game is on TV. You’re getting back-to-back years of four teams in the NCAA Tournament and one team in the NIT. It’s almost half your league is in the postseason. That’s phenomenal.”
DISTRICT AWARDS: Mashburn and House earned All-District honors from both the United States Basketball Writers Association and the National Association of Basketball Coaches.
The USBWA honors are for District VIII, which cover teams in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah And Wyoming and honors 10 players.
UVU head coach Mark Madsen was named the District Coach of the Year from both entities and Bandaogo, Le’Tre Darthard and Trey Woodbury each were alldistrict selections.