STEVENS: Young Lobos Battle NM Highlands in The Pit
Courtesy: New Mexico Athletics  
Release:  11/02/2009
Courtesy: New Mexico Athletics

Nov. 2, 2009

Lobo Basketball
Tuesday: New Mexico Highlands at Lobos, 7 p.m., The Pit
Radio: KKOB -770AM; Lobo Radio Network
Online: GameTracker, game story on GoLobos.com
Up Next: UC Riverside, Nov. 14, The Pit.

By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/GoLobos.com

Steve Alford's pre-game checklist might have a new addition for the 2009-10 basketball season. The Lobo coach might have to research the curfew laws in the various stops his University of New Mexico team will make this year.

Probably the worst thing that could happen to Alford's Lobos this season is that they march into an overtime or two and some of his players are removed from the court for curfew violations.

OK, we joke - kind of. But when Alford strolls his Lobos onto the Bob King Floor Tuesday in an exhibition run with New Mexico Highlands, Alford will be coaching the third-youngest team out of 346 schools at the D-I level.

And if you only counted returning upperclassmen - senior Roman Martinez and junior Dairese Gary - Alford's pack would tie as the second-youngest team in the nation.

Alford and his Lobos' attitude falls along the line of "it is what it is." As redshirt freshman Curtis Dennis put it: "We have a lot of young guys, but they can play and they can play at this level."

The young Lobos also have to play. Alford, who lost three seniors from his 2009 Mountain West Conference championship team, says he expects all Lobos to see court time this season. "We're short on bodies," he said.

UNM fans get to take a look at these young Lobos when the Cowboys and the Lobos unveil the new-look Pit, whose look isn't yet completed. The season probably will be a challenge for Alford and his Lobos and there are a few challenges waiting Lobo fans, too.

The Pit is fast becoming one of the premier basketball venues in the nation, but the $60 million renovation job won't be completed until November of 2010. Some of the challenges ahead for Lobo fans include parking, concessions and restrooms.

"We know a year from now, we got the best basketball facility in the country," said Alford. "(Dealing with renovation) is a lot better than playing outside The Pit. I wouldn't want to have a year where they had to shut The Pit down."

The Lobos' chore on Tuesday is to shut down the Cowboys. On paper, the game looks like another preseason Lobo romp. Highlands plays in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference. But a veteran Highlands team was picked to win that league.

The Cowboys are led by 6-2 Roman Andrade, who averaged 10.6 points last season, and 6-8 Chris Dunn, who averaged 14.7 points and 6.9 rebounds.

"It's a team that's going to be confident and is looking for a big year and we're still trying to find ourselves," said Alford "It makes for an interesting contest."

UNM fans' first look at the Lobos came in a team scrimmage at the Lobo Howl held at the Santa Ana Star Center. A lot of the young Lobos looked good going against their own. Alford expects - and probably wants -- things to be different against the Cowboys. At this time of the season, sometimes it's best to expose your faults so you can try and make them go away.

"Coaches need a game to play against somebody else so they (opponent) exploit your weaknesses," said Alford. "You need to go against somebody else to see what works, what doesn't work.

"We're trying to figure out rotations. We're trying to figure out what we can do offensively, what we can do defensively."

The mainstays on this team are obvious ones: Martinez and Gary. They are the two returning upperclassmen and the two top returning scorers from last year's MWC championship team that won 22 games. Martinez had a 10.6 average last year and Gary came in at 8.1 points per game.

"The leadership I get out of Dairese and Ro will be pivotal," said Alford. "Can those two take their (physical) roles to a higher level and yet be great leaders? "

The strength of the UNM team is on the perimeter. The Lobos are loaded with quickness, athleticism and talented guns. But those outside Lobos also will have to help inside, especially with board work.

The inside game will hinge on the play of 6-8 A.J. Hardeman, 6-9 Will Brown and 6-9 freshman Matt Staff. Their development also is pivotal for this UNM team.

Gary, Martinez, Nate Garth and Phillip McDonald are proven talents on the outside. The first-year Lobos asked to produce are JC transfer Darington Hobson, redshirt Dennis, and true freshmen, Chad Adams, Jamal Fenton and walk-on Kevin Nelson.

Hobson has seen two seasons of collegiate ball and has the potential to help UNM in scoring, rebounding and leadership. He averaged 15.2 points and 8.7 rebounds at College of Eastern Utah.

"There were a lot of players in my JUCO league who are at the D-I level now," said Hobson. "So I've seen that quickness and that type of talent. I think at this level teams play with more focus and probably play better defense.

"We have young guys who are going to have to produce right away, but I think they will. The thing that impressed me about our young guys is they came in here with the focus and the open minds to get better. You can tell they are listening and trying to get better.

"I expect a lot of them to step up this year."

Ditto for coach Alford.