This year’s New Mexico roster seems to get along well, but it’s still an inexperienced group and sometimes tough love is needed.
“Birima!” exclaimed point guard Jalen House after freshman Birima Seck made a mistake near the basket in a recent practice.
The pair talked quietly along with Minnesota transfer Jamal Mashburn. Eventually, head coach Richard Pitino told them to let it go. They did, and a minute later Seck did better and got a high five from House, an Arizona State transfer and son of former NBA player Eddie House.
Seck has been open about how different his expectations were about what college basketball would be like. The 6’11 forward said he underestimated how talented his teammates would be and admitted that he didn’t realize how much he would have to improve to be competitive at this level.
While it’s not always easy to be called out on mistakes, Seck said he has learned a lot from the more experienced guys.
“I am new in college basketball, so I’m going to listen to what they have to say because they know what they are talking about,” Seck said. “Sometimes I can get upset about it, but at the end of the day I have to learn and move on.”
The Senegal native came to New Mexico from Dream City Christian High School in Arizona, and one of his highlights there was when he picked up a double-double with a season-high 10 points and 12 rebounds on Jan. 23. Seck was originally part of the 2022 class but reclassified and picked the Lobos over Kansas, Texas Tech, Arizona State and South Florida.
There are a lot of unknowns for New Mexico. The Lobos have a new coaching staff, several new players and not a lot experience in the 2021-22 roster. They have talented guards, but Pitino pointed out that it will take more than a couple good offensive players to be successful.
The bigs are still working on being more aggressive, and the defense as a whole isn’t quite where Pitino would like it to be. However, there is improvement everyday and that’s what the head coach is trying to focus on.
“The best teams are the ones where the players take ownership of themselves... I definitely see improvement with Birima,” he said. “I think before, he was trying to figure it out where he is on the court. I think he is starting to understand that if I just play hard and I listen, I’m going to get opportunities.”
It’s not just Seck who is looking to improve. The Lobos went 6-16 overall last season and 2-15 in the Mountain West conference. The roster and staff look quite different now as the program essentially starts over.
Pitino talked about the importance of everyone learning what their strengths are and how to play to their role. Seck said he sees his role with the Lobos as a guy who is in charge of defense and rebounds, and his coach agreed with that, although he has described Seck as more of a forward than a center.
There are five players listed as forwards on the roster but the most experienced one, senior Valdir Manuel, has been suspended indefinitely. Gethro Muscadin, a 6’10 sophomore, was the starter for the Lobos during their closed-door scrimmage against Northern Arizona two weeks ago. However, Muscadin is also currently suspended for games for not meeting team expectations, even though he is allowed to practice with the team. That leaves senior walk-on Jordan Arroyo, junior Jay Allen-Tovar and Seck available.
Due this roster fluidity, Seck could get good minutes this season and even make it into the starting lineup. Pitino said he has good length and speed, but also pointed out that one of his best attributes is his attitude because he always has a smile on his face.
The freshman said he is feeling more secure of himself every day and that one of the guys who has helped him the most is Mashburn. The 6’2 guard followed Pitino to New Mexico when the former Minnesota coach got the job in Albuquerque. With so many new faces, Mashburn has been helping his teammates get familiar with Pitino’s system.
Mashburn also knows how to handle pressure in the basketball world, as his dad, whom he was named after, played 12 seasons in the NBA. One of the biggest lesson’s he is trying to pass on to Seck is to just be confident.
“I feel like the game is mostly mental. I think he is ready to go,” Mashburn said. “I think he needs to just continue to believe and bring that confidence out. He’s with me every day working in the gym. I always harp on him to just keep playing hard. Keep being you and keep at it.”