Stevens: Lobos' 22-Win Season Reflects Program Consistency
Courtesy: New Mexico Athletics  
Release:  04/12/2011
Courtesy: New Mexico Athletics

April 12, 2011

End of Season Notes Get Acrobat Reader

Lobo Men's Basketball -- 2010-11 Season Review

By Richard Stevens -- Senior Writer/GoLobos.com

The magic of the 2009-10 season might not have been repeated in dramatic and show-stopping fashion, but it's impossible to say Coach Steve Alford and his staff didn't pull a few rabbits -- and a lot of wins -- out of their hat this past season.

The Lobos of 2010-11 simply were too young, too inexperienced, to throw out another 20-win season, but they did it anyway. As Alford said once during New Mexico's 22-13 run: "That's the good thing about youth. Sometimes they just don't know."

The Lobos did know two things this past season. They knew they had the talent to play with anyone, if they could just play consistent at both ends of the court and make a few shots.

The young Lobos also knew they had one of the best Lobos ever to lean on in during crunch time and that leadership, that will to win, had few equals coast-to-coast.

One of the obvious highlights of the 2010-11 season was the play of Dairese Gary in his final season at the University of New Mexico. This young man was tremendous. He willingly placed a team on his broad shoulders and tried to carry them to a third straight Mountain West title in a league that featured two of the top teams in the nation.

One of the saddest moments in Lobo history was the day Gary went down and didn't get back up. It was really an impossible, unbelievable sight. Gary had been splashed across courts for years. He had been hammered to the floor numerous by the huge behemoths of the paint in their futile efforts to stop this Lobos' power drives to the hoop.

Heck, a runaway train couldn't stop Gary, but on a cruel court in Las Vegas, Nev., a pop in Gary's right knee sent him crashing to the floor and you knew that something was really wrong. Gary didn't get back up.

"All Dairese kept saying on the bench was, `I'm sorry,'" said Craig Neal, UNM's associate head coach.

It was a cruel ending to Gary's career as a Lobo and it also doomed UNM's shot at a third consecutive win over Brigham Young and Jimmer Fredette, the National Player of The Year. Gary went down two minutes into the second half and UNM was eliminated from the 2011 Mountain West Conference Tournament by the loss to BYU.

For sure, any reflections back on the 2010-11 season have to linger on what Gary gave his Lobos this past season and in the previous three. The senior point guard led one of the youngest teams in the nation to 22 wins, back into postseason play, and was named to the All-MWC First Team and the MWC All-Defense Team. Gary also ended his career at UNM as the Mountain West's career assist leader with 564.

Had Gary not hurt his knee, he would have ended his career tied for the most games played (137) as a Lobo. His run stopped at 135.

The Lobos failed in their bid to defend their two-year reign on the MWC throne, but in a season of youth and reloading, the Lobos did post another 20-win season and did return to postseason play.

The Lobos opened National Invitation Tournament play against a very good UTEP team and posted a solid 69-57 Pit win. The NIT rewarded the Lobos with a trip to Alabama where the Crimson Tide was riding a 17-game home win streak in Tuscaloosa. Alabama, the eventual NIT runners-up and a team that probably should have been included in the NCAA bracket, ended UNM's season 74-67 by holding off a Gary-less Lobo rally.

The end of the season did give Lobo fans a glimpse of what's to come in 2011-12 and there were really no surprises. If 2010-11 could be called a "reloading" year, then the ammunition the Lobos carry forward is potent and exciting.

The Lobos return 6-foot-9 Drew Gordon, who was named to the 2011 All-MWC Second Team and also named the league's Newcomer of The Year. UNM also brings back Kendall Williams, the 2011 MWC Freshman of The Year and All-MWC honorable mention.

These first-year Lobos had dynamic seasons in 2010-11. Gordon, a transfer from UCLA, had to sit out UNM's first seven games due to NCAA transfer rules, but Williams was a rookie sensation from the opening tip.

The 6-foot-3 off-guard didn't wait long to show his D-I talent as he scored 15 points against Arizona State and had 12 points at Cal-Berkeley. He ended the season as UNM's No. 3 scorer with an 11.6 average while shooting .454 from the field. His assist-to-turnover ratio was No. 4 in the MWC and 63rd in the nation. He scored 18 at Alabama, nine points in the final 40 seconds.

Gordon gave UNM an immediate go-to player in the paint, as he became one of the more consistent inside threats in the MWC. He ended up as UNM's No. 2 scorer at 13.0, just behind Gary's 14.1 average. Gordon was one of the top board men in the league and UNM's No. 1 rebounder with a 10.5 average, to give him a double-double average for the season.

6-9 Junior Drew Gordon

The combination of Gordon and A.J. Hardeman inside often was too much for the opposing defenses to handle. Those two juniors had solid years and UNM had streaks of brilliance from these other Lobos, too: Emmanuel Negedu, Chad Adams, Jamal Fenton, Tony Snell, Phillip McDonald, Cameron Bairstow and Alex Kirk.

The Lobos took a major blow inside when Negedu was lost for the season due to a heart issue. The muscular, 6-7 forward showed his inside potential by leading UNM in rebounds in back-to-back games (18 total), but played in only 10 games this season and missed the entire MWC season.

That slack was picked up nicely by 6-11 freshman Alex Kirk and 6-9 freshman Cameron Bairstow. Bairstow came up with several key baskets for UNM during the season with his fundamentally sound post moves. Kirk's potential was dramatically displayed on Jan. 6 when he set a Lobo freshman record with 31 points in a 102-62 beat down of Cal State Bakersfield.

"I'm not the easiest guy to impress, but that was impressive," said Alford after Kirk's performance.

Tony Snell, another freshman, reached double figures four times during the season, including 16 against BYU, 19 against Wyoming and 14 against San Diego State.

Sophomore Jamal Fenton got invaluable playing time at the point after Gary went down and Fenton's immediate impact off the bench sparked several key UNM runs during the season. Fenton reached double figures in two of UNM's final three games against MWC opponents including 14 in the MWC tourney loss vs. BYU. UNM got similar spark off the bench from sophomore Chad Adams, who scored 15 vs. Longwood and had 10 points in a crucial UNM win at Air Force.

The Lobos two returning juniors -- A.J. Hardeman and Phillip McDonald -- had critical baskets and huge games throughout the season. Hardeman's intensity under the glass was a nice complement to Gordon's smoothness. Hardman had 14 points and 10 boards at TCU and 10 points and nine boards at Colorado State. He scored 11 points in UNM's MWC tourney loss to BYU.

McDonald averaged 10.9 points for the Lobos. His best game probably was the 26 points he scored in UNM's 82-64 romp at Brigham Young. He also had 18 points at NMSU, 27 points vs. Colorado State, and 20 vs. TCU. This quiet Lobo probably has to step up as a leader in 2011-12 when UNM actually will take to the court with three seniors -- McDonald, Hardeman and Gordon.

That will be a big change for the Lobos, who went into the 2010-11 season as a question mark because of all that youth. It turned out to be a big year for UNM's freshmen, sophomore and first-year Lobos. "I can't thank these young players enough for what they did for us this year," said Coach Alford.

The season of 2010-11 will be remember for Gary, for postseason play, for two wins over Brigham Young, and for the unveiling of the renovated Pit which gives UNM one of the finest basketball facilities in the nation. The Lobos drew an average of 14,570 fans for 17 Pit games.

However, it also is a season that should be marked for revealing the deep consistency of Steve Alford's program at UNM. This was a season that could have easily gone sour because of the youth. Instead, Alford threw out his fourth consecutive 20-win season as a Lobo after inheriting a program that had lost the previous year in the MWC tourney's play-in game.

In his fourth season as a Lobo, Alford has more wins, a higher winning percentage and more regular-season league titles than any previous Lobo coach during a four-year span. UNM also continues to show toughness on the road as Alford's program picked up its 30th road win at Brigham Young. UNM won 28 road games in the 10 seasons prior to Alford's arrival.

The Lobos picked up wins away from The Pit this season vs. Southern Illinois, New Mexico State, Colorado (neutral court), Texas Tech, Air Force, TCU, BYU and Colorado State (MWC tourney).

"I think it's critical with a program that you don't have a season of slippage," said Alford. "We avoided that this season, got 22 wins and returned to the postseason."

For that, you thank Dairese Gary and you thank a lot of young and first-year Lobos, who stepped it up big time. You also thank Alford, who went to the court in 2010-11 with not only a team -- but with a program.

Editor's Note: Richard Stevens is a former Associate Sports Editor and Sports Columnist for The Albuquerque Tribune. You can reach him at rstevens50@comcast.net.