Oct. 26, 2010
2010-11 LOBO MEN'S BASKETBALL PREVIEW
By Richard Stevens -- Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
You might expect a program that has won back-to-back Mountain West Conference championships to have more than a few gray beards strutting the court and making the University of New Mexico one of the more veteran teams in the nation.
Not so. For some reason, the Lobos seem to get younger and younger as Coach Steve Alford and his Lobos go forth to defend old titles and chase new ones. The Lobos' MWC Championship team of 2010 was one of the younger teams in the nation and once again Alford will throw out a bunch of Lobo pups and expect them to grow into a team capable of living up to the success of this dynamic program.
"This is my youngest team ever," said Alford, the 2009 and 2010 MWC Coach of The Year.
Oh, the Lobos have a grizzled veteran in senior point guard Dairese Gary, whose overall play on both ends of the court -- and an ingrained toughness -- makes him one of the top basketball quarterbacks in the nation. But Gary is the only senior. And only two of Alford's juniors have seen the court as Lobos: A.J. Hardeman and Phillip McDonald.
It's a curious situation for Alford. The last time UNM had a single senior on the team prior to 2009-10 was 1985-86. Alford is looking at back-to-back seasons with a single senior on the UNM roster.
No big deal. Alford will throw the blueprint of success in front of his new pack and expect them to do what the last three UNM teams have done -- work their butts off and step up in a big way.
"We had great success the first three years and this group wants to keep that going," said Alford. "But a lot of roles have changed and there is a lot of inexperience out there. Still, the blueprint is out there for them to see and they understand what is expected of them."
What is expected from Alford basketball is a complete game of honest effort. His Lobos play defense. His Lobos take care of the ball. His Lobos are unselfish. His Lobos know the difference between a good shot and a bad shot. His Lobos play with confidence and poise down the stretch. His Lobos also hit big shots.
It's been an amazing blueprint of possibly overachieving results. The Lobos roared to MWC titles in 2009, winning 22 games, and repeated in 2010, winning 30 games. The 2009-10 Lobos were beyond amazing. There is a line from the Paul Newman movie "Cool Hand Luke," about how "Nobody can eat 50 eggs." And nobody can win 14 straight MWC games either. But the Lobos did in 2010.
They rolled out a school-record 30 wins (30-5), highlighted by that impossible 14-game MWC win streak that left the Lobos alone atop the league as outright champions. UNM soared to a No. 8 national ranking and entered the NCAA Tournament as a No. 3 seed.
Alford said last year's team never seemed to understand they were too young to do some of the things they did last year. He is hoping this year's team is equally unaware of its youth and inexperience.
"We had a young team last year go out and gain incredible momentum early and we maintained that momentum through the conference. We got on one of those rolls and it was a team that believed it was maybe better than it was. We have young guys coming into a championship-type atmosphere and they appreciate what has happened before and they know what is expected."
Of course, with Alford there are the building blocks to his program. "I expect the effort on the defensive end and valuing the basketball to become mainstays in what we are trying to do with this program," said Alford.
Those qualities might be even more important to Alford's young Lobos this year. UNM will play 10 teams during the season that advanced to the 2010 postseason wars. "This is Year Four for us and this will be the most difficult schedule we've had at New Mexico," said Alford.
The Lobos also have been picked to finish third in the MWC regular-season campaign. That placement probably has a three-pronged explanation: 1- There are several teams returning the bulk of their starting lineup. 2- The Lobos lost their No. 1 and No. 2 scorers, their top rebounder, their top 3-point shooter and their top assist man with the loss of Darington Hobson and Roman Martinez. 3- Did we mention the Lobos are young?
If you kick aside the youth factor for a moment, it's easy to like what you see over in the renovated Pit. This 2010-11 edition of Lobo basketball is talented, quick, bigger and deep. It has toughness and talent at the point, shooters on the wing and more muscle inside than Alford saw in his first three seasons at UNM.
It is a team loaded with athleticism and now needs to put in the work and build the chemistry that Lobo fans saw in Alford's first three Pit teams. That shouldn't be a problem. There are a lot of factors that build chemistry, but the disciplined demands of Alford's program backed by fundamental ball and honest effort seem to help stir that Pit stew into something special.
Here is an overview of the 2010-11 Steve Alford Lobos breaking the team down into "The Point," "The Perimeter," and "The Bigs":
The Lobos have a storied history of point guards - Petie Gibson, Darrell McGee, Kelvin Scarborough, Greg Brown -- and senior Dairese Gary will go down as one of the toughest and probably the most accomplished in the win column. He has led his Lobos to back-to-back Mountain West crowns and there were more than a few crunch moments when Gary threw his team on his back with that refuse-to-lose attitude.
Alford calls Gary his "Bulldog," but often the 6-foot-1 Gary bulls through defenses more like a T-Rex on a feeding rampage. Gary is determined, strong, talented, and knows how to finish a drive and a game.
Gary was the Lobos' No. 3 scorer in 2009-10 with a 13.1 average. He was behind Hobson (15.9) and Martinez (13.9), who obviously took a lot of pressure off Gary out front because of their all-around skills. Hobson actually led the Lobos in assists with 160 and Gary was second with 137.
Gary, like most Lobos, will have to take a step up to help the team overcome the loss of Martinez and Hobson, who also was UNM's No. 1 rebounder.
Gary has some good help up front. The 5-foot-9 Jamal Fenton returns for his sophomore year with a solid year of experience under his belt. The Lobo speedster averaged 3.5 points and 11.6 minutes a game last season.
He split time off the bench with Nate Garth, who transferred. The pressure of the point also had relief valves in Hobson and Martinez, two savvy ball handlers. With that trio gone, Fenton is looking at an expanded role in 2010-11.
"The kind of play we got out of Jamal the first ten games last year is what we need from him all season," said Alford. "He has the ability to harass people on defense and he gets us running on offense. He hit the wall a bit as a freshman and Nate got a lot of time off the bench. But now Jamal knows the grind of a college season."
The Lobos also are looking at a talented freshman in Kendall Williams, a 6-foot-3 guard with the ball handling skills to play the point and help break presses. Williams also has the size and shooting touch to play an off-guard spot. If he proves to be a productive asset in scoring and playing defense, it will be tough to keep this athletic freshman off the floor.
"Kendall gives us more speed and quickness up front," said Alford. "But he also gives us a bigger presence. He is another guard who is extremely athletic. His versatility and athleticism gives him a great chance to produce right away at this level."
The losses on the perimeter from last year's 30-5 team are obvious: Hobson and Martinez. That's 29 points a game, 15 boards and a whole lot of go-to toughness and confidence. Martinez also was UNM's top 3-point man from 2009-10 with 99 treys over the 35-game season. If there was a statistical category called "All The Little Things," Martinez would have topped that one, too.
One way to put those losses into perspective is to remember that in 2009-10 the Lobos had to replace Tony Dandridge, Chad Toppert and Daniel Faris. No big deal. UNM just rolled out a school-record 30 wins, an outright MWC title, and Alford's first NCAA bid as a Lobo.
Still, the production and leadership lost in Hobson and Martinez are big holes to fill. How does Alford replace all that production? "You ask a lot of people to elevate their game," said Alford. "You don't just replace guys like Darington and `Ro, who meant so much to your consistency.
The obvious Lobo on the perimeter to lean to is 6-5 Phillip McDonald. The junior has logged a lot of experience over the past two seasons and there are no surprises awaiting McDonald in 2010-11. Well, maybe a little bit more attention from defenses with Hobson and Martinez gone.
McDonald has been smooth and fairly consistent as a freshman and a sophomore and really played at a high level in those first and second seasons at D-I ball. UNM needs him to take a step up this year. He will be a marked Lobo and might have to take to the court with a little more orneriness and a few more power drives to the basket.
McDonald was UNM's No. 4 scorer last year averaging 10.4, shooting 43 percent overall and .396 from behind the line. Like Gary, he benefited from the defensive attention that teams had to throw on Hobson and Martinez -- and Gary.
"With 'Ro and Darington gone, Phillip's role is going to be expanded," said Alford." He had sort of a complementary role last year and he was good at it. He will be more of a go-to player and there is more expectations in that role."
Another Lobo on the wing that needs to step up is Curtis Dennis. The 6-5 sophomore might have to take a bigger step than McDonald did. Dennis averaged 2.7 points last year playing a limited role coming off the bench. But Dennis can light it up and has the potential to be a double-figure scorer. "Curtis is 21-years of age, with good experience and he can shoot it," said Alford. "We are expecting a lot more out of Curtis this season.
UNM's talent and quickness on the perimeter is obvious, but there also are some question marks on the wings. Mostly, the questions come from the inexperience. UNM has 6-6 Chad Adams with guard-like skills, but Adams averaged only 5.5 minutes per game last year and averaged 1.6 points.
"Chad is a swing guard type, who can play inside or out," said Alford. "He has the height and the quickness to guard almost anyone on the court. He is a big kid who can run and he is shooting the ball better."
Adams is joined on the wing by 6-7 freshman Tony Snell, possibly Kendall Williams and 6-7 sophomore transfer Emmanuel Negedu. Williams could see playing time on the point and on the perimeter. Negedu can go perimeter or power forward. The Lobos also have 6-foot freshman Chris Perez hoping for playing time on the crowded edge.
Take away the inexperience factor on the edge, and Alford has a plethora of perimeter promise. He can throw out an edge of shooters. He also can throw out a perimeter with size and quickness that could be nasty on the boards.
"There is a lot of youth and inexperience (on the perimeter)," said Alford. "But we are deep and talented. There are a lot of combinations we can go to. We'll see who steps up and want to play."
Alford doesn't label his paint warriors as high or low posts, or power forwards and centers. He calls them his "Bigs." The biggest addition here (not the tallest) is 6-foot-9 Drew Gordon, who gives Alford a true center-type for the first time in four seasons.
The 6-foot-9 transfer from UCLA isn't eligible until the fall semester ends (Dec. 17), but that doesn't hurt UNM inside much because of the return of 6-8 A.J. Hardeman. Hardeman was as much a key as any Lobo last season because of his elevated play inside where he averaged 7.0 points and 5.5 rebounds.
Still, the addition of Gordon will be instrumental in UNM's success this season in defending its MWC title. Gordon is a physical presence inside, but this big guy runs the court with the look of a guard.
"Drew is explosive inside," said Alford. "He is a big-time rebounder and shot blocker. I don't think our style of play will change much, but there will be more of an emphasis on getting the ball inside and attacking from the post position. We have the bodies now to do that.
"We have more depth at the `Bigs,' too. A.J. can play both forward spots. He understands our system and runs the floor like a guard."
Hardeman and Gordon are joined inside by two freshmen: 6-11 Alex Kirk and 6-9 Cameron Bairstow. The 6-7 Negedu also has the strength and the skills to contribute from the power forward spot. The versatility that Alford sees on his perimeter is mirrored inside. The only question mark is that three of these paint warriors are first-year Lobos.
"Alex can shoot the three, but he has good back-to-the-basket moves," said Alford. "He is the tallest player on the team and is another shot blocker on the front line. Cameron is another big, who can step out and hit the 3-pointer, and he is very strong for a freshman.
"We have had a stretch of great shooting and basically have done that with a four-guard rotation. We can still do that, if we want to, but we have that strong inside presence now."
For sure, there is a new-look Lobo team about to hit the new-look Pit. This is a Lobo team that can go small and be extremely quick and explosive. It also is Lobo team that can go big with an inside presence and not lose much quickness. Whatever lineup Alford throws onto the floor, it will be a team that can score and make it tough on the other team to score.
There also is a lot of excitement for the team and for all Lobo fans about the new-look Pit - all bright, shiny and modern with its $60 million face-lift. The heart of The Pit hasn't changed and the call of Pit tradition merges with the success and the expectations of the Alford era to make the 2010-11 season a landmark time for Lobo basketball.
Is there any wonder that the hottest ticket in town is a seat to watch these Lobos try to roll out a third Mountain West title?
Editor's Note: Richard Stevens is a former Associate Sports Editor and Sports Columnist for The Albuquerque Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.