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The Other Top 25 preseason rankings: No. 22 New Mexico Lobos

The Lobos have a talented roster that could be capable of great things, but will it reach its potential?

NCAA Basketball: New Mexico at Wyoming Troy Babbitt-USA TODAY Sports

2018-19 Record: 14-18 (7-11 Mountain West), No postseason
Key Returning Players: Vance Jackson (G/F, R-Jr.), Carlton Bragg (F, R-Sr.), Makuach Maluach (G/F, Sr.), JaQuan Lyle (G, R-Sr.), Corey Manigault (F, Sr.), Keith McGee (G, R-Jr.), Drue Drinnon (G, So.)
Key Losses: Anthony Mathis, Dane Kuiper, Vladimir Pincuk (transferred to San Diego)
Key Newcomers: Zane Martin (G, R-Jr., Towson), JJ Caldwell (G, R-Jr, Texas A&M, JUCO), Vante Hendrix (G, R-So, Utah)

To put it simply, New Mexico did not live up to expectations last season.

In the preseason, the Lobos were projected to finish third in the Mountain West, and even cracked The Other Top 25 preseason poll on this very site at No. 17. Then JaQuan Lyle tore his Achilles and Carlton Bragg missed the first month of the season due to eligibility issues.

All in all, year two of the Paul Weir era at New Mexico could be viewed as a bit of a disappointment following a season that consisted of a third place finish in the Mountain West and coming within a game of the NCAA Tournament. Aside from a drubbing that handed Nevada its first loss of the season, the 2018-19 rendition of the Lobos was an up and down, inconsistent bunch that didn’t live up to the hype that had been bestowed upon it.

But guess what? The Lobos boast a talented roster once again that features a lot the pieces that generated the buzz in Albuquerque last fall. Bart Torvik’s T-Rank has the Lobos at No. 74 in his preseason projections, putting them behind San Diego State and Utah State in the Mountain West and in theoretical bubble territory nationally. On paper, the potential is there for New Mexico to be a solid team that can compete at the top of the Mountain West. The onus is on Weir to get the pieces to mesh.

Key Non-Conference Games

The Lobos don’t have a ton of meat on the non-conference schedule, but there are a few games of real substance on it that could help down the road. There’s the annual home and home matchup against what should be a very good New Mexico State team. They’re also participating in the Legends Classic at the Barclays Center where they’ll meet a Final Four participant in Auburn in the first round with the possibility of playing Wisconsin or Richmond afterwards.

Nov. 21 at New Mexico State
Nov. 25 vs. Auburn (Legends Classic, Barclays Center)
Nov. 26 vs. Wisconsin/Richmond (Legends Classic, Barclays Center)
Dec. 12 vs. New Mexico State
Dec. 17 vs. Grand Canyon

Three Things to Watch

How healthy is JaQuan Lyle?

As noted above, Lyle was sidelined last season with a torn Achilles. The Ohio State transfer was expected to be a versatile piece for Paul Weir’s up-tempo offense, and Lobos fans received some good news with this nugget earlier this week.

Achilles injuries are notoriously tough to come back from, so it’s hard to predict just how much of an impact Lyle will have from the jump. However, if he can work his way back into form, he can do a lot of things on the offensive end.

At 6’5, Lyle has great size for a guard, which is particularly helpful when asked to facilitate an offense. In his sophomore season, Lyle’s assist rate of 30.6 was good for No. 59 in the country. He knocked in over 40 percent of his threes in that same sophomore season, and he’s shown an ability to operate in the post if a mismatch presents itself. Weir wants to play fast, and Lyle’s basketball IQ and versatility should be a huge boost for the Lobos if he can stay on the floor.

Too many cooks in the kitchen?

There’s no denying the talent on the roster. However, when you have a roster that can theoretically go nine or 10 players deep, it can be tough to allocate both minutes and touches in a manner that keeps everyone satisfied. It was an issue that Nevada had last year that seemed like it never got ironed out completely.

KenPom defines significant contributors as those that used between 20-24% of their team’s possessions and major contributors as those that used between 24-28%. All three of New Mexico’s significant players (Bragg, McGee, Maluach) are back, as are the two major contributors (Jackson, Manigault). JaQuan Lyle has had seasons in both of those buckets, and Zane Martin used 31.5% of his team’s possessions in his sophomore season at Towson. Add in JJ Caldwell, Vante Hendrix and Drue Drinnon and you have a multitude of guys that could expect to have an impact in some capacity. Managing minutes, touches and egos will be imperative how well this team meshes over the course of the season.

Frees and Threes

Last year, New Mexico played at one of the fastest tempos in the country and focused its offense on two things: free throws and threes. Their three point rate of 43.7% was No. 55 in the country, and their free throw rate of 39.3% was 32nd. As far as point distribution goes, only 42.5% of the Lobos points came from two point shots, which was No. 335 in the country. If you subscribe to the trend in analytical thinking that says that threes and free throws are among the most efficient ways of scoring, New Mexico is doing so from the right places.

However, there’s a lot left to be desired for how efficient they actually are from those places. The Lobos hit just 34.5% from behind the arc and 70% at the stripe, which were both right around the national average last season. New Mexico won’t have the luxury of having Anthony Mathis this year either, who hit over 40% from deep on high volume and almost 90% at the stripe. T-Rank projects New Mexico as the No. 13 (!!!) team in terms of offensive efficiency. This is after finishing 198th in that same metric last year. An uptick in efficiency of that magnitude is going to require better performance from the most valuable places on the floor from the entire roster.

X Factor

Carlton Bragg

New Mexico has cornered the market on College Basketball Players That Feel Like They’ve Been Around For A Decade with Lyle and Bragg on the roster. We’ve touched on Lyle enough, but Bragg should have a huge impact as well. Bragg’s role on this team should be clear: rebound, block shots, and finish at the rim.

As a long and athletic big, Bragg has the skillset to do all of those things. His defensive rebounding rate of 29.8% was top 10 nationally, and his 1.2 blocks per game was 4th in the Mountain West. On offense, over 60% of his shots came at the rim, where he shot a team best 63.7%. However, he struggled when moving further from the hoop. He connected on just 30.3% of his two-point jumpers, and was 0-6 from behind the arc. There’s going to plenty of guys on the roster that can get their own shots all over the floor, but Bragg is the one guy on the roster that can truly own the paint. The better he does at sticking in that role, the better the Lobos will be.