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Jan. 25—There have been a lot of pats on the backs and "attaboys" thrown at the Lobo men's basketball the past couple of days.
UNM went on the road last week and not only hung tough with, but had a shot to upset two of the league's title contenders in hostile road environments — a 6-point loss at Colorado State, which sits four spots outside being ranked in Monday's new Associated Press Top 25, and a 2-point loss at Wyoming, which has yet to lose a league game and is also receiving Top 25 votes.
But UNM, the league leader in moral victories, is still looking for its first Mountain West Conference win, sitting at 0-6 in the standings and 7-12 overall.
And there's no rest for the weary when first-year coach Richard Pitino and his staff started preparing for Tuesday's night's opponent, Fresno State.
"Yeah. Tough time to be rebuilding," Pitino said when asked about the strength of the league that, as of Monday morning, had four teams in the NCAA's top 50 of the NET rankings and six in the top 75.
If the Mountain West Tournament started today, Fresno State (13-5, 3-2 MWC) would be the sixth seed and in the play-in round — the top five seeds get a bye to the quarterfinals — despite its being ranked 59 in KenPom.com and 65 in the NET. And the Bulldogs boast maybe the most likely future NBA player in the league in 7-foot center Orlando Robinson.
Last week, the Lobos were tasked with facing the league's top two 1-2 punches. At CSU, it was forward David Roddy and point guard Isaiah Stevens. Saturday at Wyoming, it was veteran point forward Hunter Maldonado and center Graham Ike, who ended up with 29 points and 15 rebounds.
Tuesday, UNM doesn't feel any bit of relief knowing the star power might be limited to just one as Robinson (19.7 points, 8.7 rebounds, 1.5 blocks per game) is the only Bulldog averaging in double figures scoring this season.
"Where Ike is very, very effective is. he's a great free throw shooter. And he's going to get fouled," said Pitino when asked for the comparison between Ike and Robinson, arguably the top two centers in the league.
"Robinson is more of your prototypical NBA big. (He's) what they're looking for. ... I think Robinson just oozes NBA when you look at him."
What exactly does that mean for what Lobo fans, and Lobo players, might catch a glimpse of on Tuesday night?
Robinson, now in his third season with Fresno State, has put in work each season to become more of a complete player — one who passes well out of double teams, can score at all three levels with consistency (he has hit 19 3-pointers in 17 games this season) and has improved on defending beyond just being a near-the-rim shot blocker.
And while others around the league may still get talked about more regularly than Robinson, it's hard to overlook just how complete his game has become. He's sitting at No. 4 on KenPom.com's National Player of the Year rankings on a Top 10 list with nine other players, all from either Gonzaga or Power Five conference programs.
"He reminds me of Karl-Anthony Towns (of the Minnesota Timberwolves) a little bit. And, obviously, he's one of the best bigs in the NBA," Pitino said. "... He can step out. He can post up. They go through him a lot. He can block shots. I think he's a first-round pick. I really do. So when you're three bigs down like we are, it's going to be a challenge. It's a challenge with a full roster."
FREE THROWS: While UNM was leading the nation at one point earlier this season in free throw attempts and finished non-conference play averaging 23.3 free throw attempts per game, things have changed, to say the least.
Since Mountain West play started, UNM's 14.0 free throw attempts per game is tied with Air Force for second worst in the 11-team league.
Last week, while CSU and Wyoming combined to hit 47 of 61 free throws against UNM, the Lobos were just 11-of-15, combined, in those games.
"This may not be fun for the fans. I don't think it's the refs, quite frankly," said Pitino, before explaining the need for his players to just stay aggressive in attacking the rim on offense.
Junior forward Jay Allen-Tovar, coming off a career-high 25 point game at Wyoming, agreed that an aggressive mindset is the most important thing for the team to start getting back to the free throw line.
"It's never a negative to attack the basket," Allen-Tovar said.
POLL POSITION: No MWC team was ranked in Monday's new AP Top 25 poll, but three received votes: CSU (57 points, four spots outside being ranked); Boise State (3 points, 14 spots out); and Wyoming (2 points, 17 spots out).
PLAYERS OF THE WEEK: Wyoming's Maldonado, who drew the game-clinching charge against UNM's Jamal Mashburn Jr., with 12 seconds to go in Saturday's game in Laramie, was named the MWC Player of the Week on Monday.
Maldonado averaged 18.7 points, 10.0 assists and 6.3 rebounds in three wins last week.
Boise State forward Tysond Degenhart was the Freshman of the Week for the fourth time. He and Air Force's Ethan Taylor each have four Freshman of the Week awards this season.