- Six days on the bubble with America’s most eclectic team - Aruaru kenko

Six days on the bubble with America’s most eclectic team

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It’s 9:40 a.m. in the southeast parking lot at The Pit, and a man in black-and-white face paint circles on a dirt bike. This is Snake. He arrives early for New Mexico men’s basketball games, hypes up friendly faces and sportively harasses the visiting team when it arrives. Everyone knows Snake. He’s been at this for years. He’s a believer.

An attendant asks Snake how he is, and Snake declares he has everything he needs. His Lobos are hunting for their first NCAA Tournament berth in a decade. In a couple hours, they’ll be on network television, playing the first of back-to-back home games against ranked teams. That hasn’t happened in two decades. A door cracked open for a program aching to find a way.

When the team’s coach, Richard Pitino, pulls into his parking spot, Snake offers reassurance.

We’re going to do this together!

The bubble is a sorting tool, yes. It’s also a state. It’s being where you’re supposed to be, but not quite there yet. This is New Mexico, a team featuring two basketball scions, a COVID recruit-turned-star, a 25-year-old on his fourth program, a Nigerian center who almost didn’t make it to the U.S. this season, a teenager with a nephew in the NBA and more. With a Pitino leading the way in the high desert, eyes on the horizon.

On one mid-January Friday, right before everything became possible, senior Jamal Mashburn Jr. puts it like this: “Anything can happen in a week.”

The Roll Call

First: introducing the bubble’s most eclectic crew.

The Legacy

Jamal Mashburn Jr. was oblivious to being the son of a college All-American and NBA All-Star who scored 11,000-plus points. “I never understood why he got stopped so much in the mall,” Mashburn Jr. says. He’s the kid who liked fossils and lacrosse and didn’t give basketball much thought before he was 11. He’s a deep thinker who journals daily and a player with 1,703 career points, who left the Big Ten to follow a coach he’s known since eighth grade. “It was a no-brainer to come from Minnesota over here,” Mashburn Jr. says, “because I trusted (Pitino), and he trusts me.”

The relationship isn’t like their fathers’ connection, as coach and player at Kentucky. No one talks race horses inside the Davalos Basketball Center. But a Mashburn and a Pitino are in on something big, together. Again. “It’s a partnership, honestly,” Mashburn Jr. says. “We had one goal in mind. We wanted to come in and make a positive impact, and fast.”

The Other Legacy

Jaelen House grew up a pro wrestling fan. His favorite: Randy Orton, whose most famous gimmick involves hearing voices in his head. “I like the way he carries himself,” House says. “He’s a little crazy. And I’m a little crazy.”

The 6-foot guard is now New Mexico’s third-leading scorer, men’s hoops’ active career steals leader and, most notably, a mouthpiece-gnawing antagonist who plays like he’s holding onto an electrified fence. “The way he acts,” Lobos sophomore Donovan Dent says, “puts a battery in my back.” House needed his own recharge, though, three years ago. He went to Arizona State, just like his father, Eddie, who scored 2,000 points for the Sun Devils. But the younger House didn’t start once. He scored 229 points across two seasons. A transfer to New Mexico birthed a new antihero in The Pit. “He helped me become myself again,” House says of Pitino. “He took the leash off me and just let me go.”

The Nigerian Pitino expert

Rick Pitino needed players at Iona, his latest next stop. A former player, Gorgui Dieng, recommended a big man from the NBA Academy in Nigeria. Pitino offered Nelly Junior Joseph a scholarship, sight unseen. A day later, Junior Joseph took it. “I didn’t get to visit,” he says. “I just wanted to play for Rick Pitino, that’s all. (New York) was crazy. Too many people. Loud.”

After a transfer and a fraught visa process that delayed his arrival until Oct. 31 – a day before New Mexico’s first exhibition game – Junior Joseph sits in a lounge, enjoying the tranquility. Albuquerque suits him, as does the son of his former coach. “He is more calm than his dad, for real,” Junior Joseph says of Richard Pitino, smiling. “His dad has this high spirit. I thought it was going to be the same, until I got here. I was like, ‘Oh, wow, Richard is more chill. That’s good.’”

The hoops Methuselah

Jemarl Baker Jr. was a four-star recruit and top 100 player nationally in his recruiting class. He signed with Kentucky. The top prep players in the country were Marvin Bagley, Michael Porter Jr. and DeAndre Ayton. This was 2017.

It is 2024, and Baker, 25, is in the practice gym, doing band work to help sore knees. He is at his fourth school after two seasons each at Kentucky, Arizona and Fresno State, the injuries and extra years of eligibility piling up. “Oh, there’s definitely been times when I was done,” Baker says with a laugh. He is not done, though. “I’ve wanted to play basketball professionally for my whole life,” Baker says. “I feel like this is my passion and purpose. If I stop, I feel like I’m giving up.”

The teenager with an NBA nephew

Around the time Tru Washington began to loathe practicing football in Arizona heat, he began to envy his nephew and the gear he’d bring back from basketball tournaments. “I’m like, I want some shoes,” Washington says. “I’m just sitting at home not doing anything, waiting for another game on Saturday.”

He turned to basketball in middle school and relied on quickness – steal ball, shoot layup – before growing into the No. 98 recruit in the Class of 2023. Were it not for programs seeking out older transfer guards, Washington might not have been New Mexico’s highest-rated signee in a decade. Now he targets the path his nephew set … because his nephew is TyTy Washington, current Milwaukee Bucks backup who’s two years older than his uncle. Effectively? They’re brothers. And the “older” brother keeps tabs on the “younger” brother, sending video clips and commentary after every game he catches. “I know how to see what he’s doing to make me better,” Tru says. “He plays the game with his brain. And he uses his brain at a high level.”

The star who rose from COVID

Donovan Dent proudly lists the colleges of his fellow starters from Centennial High School basketball in 2020-21: Duke. Arizona. UCLA. Loyola Marymount. “We had a squad my junior year,” the Riverside, Calif., native says. They also had a compressed schedule and few people in the stands due to pandemic restrictions. The player who’d eventually become his state’s Mr. Basketball stared at offers from the Big West … and anonymity. “It was pretty frustrating,” Dent says. “I knew it wasn’t me not playing my part.”

How does one go from overlooked to averaging 15.5 points and 5.9 assists in the Mountain West as a sophomore? By getting out of California. Dent’s performance at the Border League tournament – held in Arizona during the summer of 2021 – opened eyes. “He didn’t shoot a lot,” Pitino says, “but we liked his feel.” That helped the Lobos hold on when Dent led Centennial to a state championship as a senior and other programs converged. “I’m not going to abandon who trusted in me before I became what I am now,” Dent says.

The coach

Richard Pitino is not from anywhere. Or doesn’t feel like it, anyway. People assume he’s a New York guy, but he was born in Boston. He’s 41 and he’s coached in seven states. It was not easy to lose the Minnesota job in 2021 after eight up-and-down seasons; suburban Edina began to feel like home. Nor was it easy to adjust to Albuquerque, but his family is comfortable, and the weather forecast never makes him wince. Always a fish out of water, somehow swimming along. “I’ve always felt like I can go anywhere, if you give me time, get to know me,” Pitino says. “When I got hired here, there was for sure a ‘Hmm, that’s weird.’ But I feel like I can run a program anywhere, as long as I have that support I need.”

He is his father’s son, and also not. Every now and then, Pitino folds his arms behind his back as he watches the action, too. But he also lacquers on sarcasm and casually flips off players during shootarounds. “He encourages everybody to be themselves, which is incredible,” Baker says. He’s approaching middle age and another inflection point with the NCAA Tournament berth in reach. Who does he want to be? Will he earn the chance to choose? Will New Mexico, of all places, be enough? “I want to be at a have, not a have-not, as it relates to your conference,” he says. “Every time I walk down the ramp, there’s a level of confidence that not everybody has this. Not everybody has 15,000 people (in the arena). Not everybody has these facilities, in our conference. The expectations are high here because the fans care, but they’re not irrational about wanting to win.”

San Diego State and A Showdown at The Pit

In the 1960s, to bypass support columns and create clear sightlines in their new arena, administrators here put the roof at ground level and dug down. They also numbered the seating rows top to bottom, which is why Row 1 at The Pit is a relative nosebleed and Row 32 puts you near the edge of the floor. That’s where New Mexico’s coach stands before a Friday practice, establishing terms of engagement for the next 24 hours. “It’s going to come down to, are we going to hit bodies?” Richard Pitino asks, as San Diego State film rolls on a flat screen.

A rhetorical question. Without physicality, the Lobos will suffer a massive letdown against the Aztecs, the national runners-up in 2023. The Pit is sold out. CBS is here for New Mexico’s first network-televised game since 2012. The Lobos are tenuously ranked 43rd nationally on KenPom.com. They are not wired for apprehension – “They gotta compete with us, too,” Mashburn Jr. says of San Diego State – but they need to actually take that next step.

Everyone grasps the stakes. The plan to double-team Aztecs star Jaedon LeDee with multiple looks is hammered home each rep. “Non-negotiable,” as Pitino puts it. There are inevitably light moments in the run-up, such as Washington asking his head coach if he could start against San Diego State, as if this were Biddy Ball. (“I was just seeing if he was going to bite on it,” the freshman guard explains.) But the gravity is felt.

In the locker room, Pitino notes the last time a network TV crew was on hand. Opportunity earned, he says. “If you play with a level of toughness and physicality, you’re going to win,” Pitino continues, voice rising. “But it ain’t about offense, it ain’t about defense. It is about rebounding. It is about loose balls. They’re going to think they can bully you. You can’t let them. You gotta set the tone right away. Every single shot that goes up, hit somebody. Every time you can f—— sprint the court, sprint the court. Embrace every single second of this, all right?”

The next two-plus hours are a noise monsoon as 15,437 fans get what they came for: an 88-70 win for New Mexico, propped up by a plus-10 rebounding margin, a school-record 14 blocks and limiting LeDee to 15 points, to that point his second-lowest total of the year.

The show-stealer is House, the son who escaped the shadow of a legend to find himself. San Diego State looks like a Final Four team again for the better part of the first half … until House sinks a floater and trips a wire. Then comes a steal and a coast-to-coast layup. “I told you I’m the one!” he screams into the din. Aztecs coach Brian Dutcher calls timeout. It doesn’t help. House ultimately scores 11 straight points as part of a 17-0 blitz from which the visitors do not recover. House is unrelenting, finishing with 26 points, six rebounds, five assists, three steals and one on-brand technical foul. “Man,” he says, “I was ready to go all day long.”

In the locker room, there is happiness, but no excessive celebration. “That was nothing right now, compared to what we want to achieve in the future,” Junior Joseph says later. Pitino wants his team to enjoy it – “You built that,” he tells them – and he notes the team’s goals remain achievable.

“It’s all right in front of us,” he says.

He informs the parents of two recruits that they should come to every game. One mom compliments his composure; Pitino assures her that he looked calm but felt like he was about to throw up. On his way to media duties, the Lobos coach is stopped by his son, Jack, who won a timeout contest and wants to hand over his prize: a box of Milk Duds. In his news conference, Pitino profusely thanks the fans. He says the atmosphere nearly made him cry. He calls it a moment his players will talk about forever.

A great day, Pitino says, and they’ll turn the page tomorrow.

But that’s tomorrow. Energy lingers long after the game ends. New Mexico might be what people yearn for it to be, and everyone feels it.

As the cheerleading team makes its way out of the arena, a familiar face greets them.

“Ladies and gentlemen, you kicked ass!” Snake exclaims. “We kicked ass together!”

Nigerian center Nelly Junior Joseph has played for both Rick Pitino and Richard Pitino. (Sam Wasson / Getty Images)

Utah State and The Beyond

At 1 p.m. on a Sunday, the Lobos settle into the film room. A San Diego State logo on the screen has the word “CLEANUP” underlining it. Standard day-after-game video review. But first? Another existential reckoning.

“What did that game reveal?” Pitino asks.

“We can beat anybody if we play the way we’re supposed to,” comes the muffled reply from the front row.

If we play the way we’re supposed to, Pitino echoes, drawing out the words for emphasis. Existence is temporary in this bubble life. The 40 deflections against the Aztecs, the bench energy, the laughs at House enjoining the crowd after a stop – “Honor my defense,” is the head coach’s deadpan narration of the clip – are reduced to memories within 12 minutes. Utah State, riding the nation’s longest win streak, is coming. There is always the other side of the mountain. “Championship teams play this way all the time,” Pitino says. “All the time.”

Yet over the next two days, New Mexico seems to treat weighty circumstances with pervasive lightness. Freshman JT Toppin catches Pitino’s attention with a bad miss in practice. Toppin blames a hurt finger. “Which one? This one?” the Lobos coach replies, extending his right middle digit. Pitino asks House to sub into a drill. House whines that his knee hurts. “I don’t care,” Pitino replies. Washington triggers an out-of-bounds play for scouting purposes and invents a call for it each time, such as “Hey, combo, combo” or “Hey, run that play.” Execution and urgency are not overly robust going into a game in which ball pressure, disruption and sprinting back on defense are the keys. The Lobos act like they want to skip ahead to the game.

It’s hard to tell if this is a good or bad thing.

“Quad 1 win opportunity – we gotta have them,” Pitino tells his team. “This game means just as much, if not more.”

It’s maybe the charm of this group, and even this place, that expectations are met in unexpected ways.

While half a country nods off thanks to a 10:43 p.m. ET start, New Mexico assails Utah State from the jump. The Lobos score 34 of 55 first-half points in the paint. They sink 13 of 14 free throws and commit only two turnovers before halftime. A timeout “Flex Cam” fixates on Holly Holm, the Albuquerque native and former UFC champion in attendance, who shows off her biceps and throws a couple jabs for good measure. None of it is a laughing matter. An eventual 99-86 win is fueled by a 26-point outburst from Junior Joseph, the starting center with visa issues who wasn’t sure he’d make it back to America for this season, and a 15-point, 14-assist night from Dent, the recruit no one noticed. “Even in high school, I was doing all this and people didn’t believe, (thinking) it wouldn’t translate to the next level,” Dent says. “It’s cliche to say, but it is proving people wrong.”

The head coach gathers his team at midcourt and delivers a pointed postgame speech. It’s really late, Pitino says. Let’s get out of here.

An NCAA-mandated day off awaits. The energy expended over these six days guarantees nothing. And two more months is a long time to maintain balance.

Within a week of this result, New Mexico debuts at No. 25 in the Associated Press poll. The Lobos tack on three more wins before stumbling at home against Boise State on Jan. 31, but they nevertheless begin February as a top 20 team in both the KenPom and NET rankings. They cut the profile of an NCAA Tournament team.

It’s not clear if they’ll get there.

It’s very clear what’s coming if they do.

On a Thursday night in January, with one consequential week conquered, a sing-song voice fills the stairwell. It’s Jaelen House, repeating the same two words as he bounds up and into the locker room.

Nobody tells him to be quiet. Nobody would bother to try.

“Get that down there, too!” the Lobos’ guard says, pointing at a visitor and smiling wide. “F— ’em!”

(Illustration: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic; photos: Sam Wasson / Getty Images)