New Mexico Lobos Women's Basketball 2011-12 Season Preview
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By Richard Stevens -- Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
In the search for healthy bodies and depth for Yvonne Sanchez's2011-12 New Mexico Lobos, maybe the obvious question really isn't tongue-in-cheek.
Does Sanchez have any eligibility left?
No joke: One of the few Lobo bodies in the Rudy Davalos Center that hasn't been face-to-face with a surgeon in the past few years is UNM's energetic and personable head coach. When Sanchez calls her team a "MASH" (mobile army surgical hospital), her smile is half grimace.
The big news and the hurtful news heading into the 2011-12 season is the loss of Sara Halasz, who for the second straight year was lost to ACL surgery. A good kid and a great basketball player were lost for the season.
"It was a huge blow. There is no sugarcoating it," said Sanchez, who took over the New Mexico program after 11 seasons as an assistant on Don Flanagan'sbench. "We only had 11 scholarship players and then your best one goes down."
To put the loss of Halasz into perspective, it would be like the 2010-11 Lobos losing do-it-all Amanda Best. Only worse.
"It's a bigger loss because we had a lot of players last year and those five freshmen saw a lot of minutes," said Sanchez.
Oh, yeah -- the five freshmen, who not longer are here. Another blow at the end of 2010-11 was losing the entire freshmen signing class including Jasmine Patterson, Tina Doughty and Morgan Toben, who combined for 18.1 points per game.
Then you toss in the loss of seniors Amanda Best and Jessica Kielpinski-- and Halasz -- and Sanchez definitely has her work cut out for her in her rookie season as the Lobos' leader. Sanchez might be looking for a magic wand to go along with her coaching whistle.
"We have to be creative and we need players to step up," said Sanchez. "These players aren't here to give up and they are working hard to have a successful season."
The Lobos are coming off a 13-18 season. It was Flanagan's first losing season in 15 years and it was the first time in 13 years that UNM failed to make a postseason tourney. Halasz and the talented freshmen were expected to join returning starters Lauren Taylor and Porche Torranceand make a charge for the 2012 Mountain West title.
Now, some of the role players, who did not start (or play) in 2010-11 -- Caroline Durbin, Jourdan Erskine, Chinyere Nnaji, Emily Stark and Nikki Nelson-- have to embrace bigger and more demanding roles.
"We lost a third of our team and then we lost our best player," said Sanchez. "Most of these players have been role players and a lot of them played spot minutes in the past. Now, they have to go out and play a lot of minutes and they need a lot of them to be scorers.
"Maybe the biggest question is, how will they handle all this?"
For sure, things have changed in Sanchez's MASH unit. However, the spirits are healthy and there is talent on the court.
Taylor, coming off knee surgery, is UNM's top returning scorer with an 8.3 average. She probably will see limited action until late December as that knee heals. "We need Lauren to get healthy," said Sanchez. "She has too good a shot and we need her out there."
Torrance is Sanchez's other returning starter. The athletic 6-foot-1 wing averaged 8.0 points and 6.1 rebounds in 2010-11. She sat out the 2009-10 season after -- what else? -- ACL surgery. Torrance needs to increase those numbers, if possible. Torrance also is an aggressive defender and was named to the All-MWC Defensive Team last year.
"We need some players to step up and Porche is one of them," said Sanchez. "Caroline could be one and Whitney has a chance to develop into one. She is very aggressive. Lauren can score and we need her to get to the line.
"The season will be a challenge. That's no question. This is a season we have to be creative as it unfolds and see what happens."
Here is a simplified breakdown of Sanchez's 2011-12 Lobos looking at "The Point," "The Wing" and "The Bigs."
If Nikki Nelsonwas healthy, then this might not be a position run by committee. However, Nelson is coming off ACL surgery. This gutsy Lobo sat out the 2010-11 season after knee surgery and also missed the 2007-08 season after knee surgery.
The 5-foot-5 (maybe) Nelson might be handicapped with some extra iron on her knees, but she is still quick with the basketball and a skilled ball handler.
"Nikki has tremendous heart, but she isn't exactly healthy," said Sanchez. "We have to monitor her. When her knees get sore, we have to shut her down. She has a point-guard mentality, but I can't leave her on the court 40 minutes. I can't push Nikki or she might not last the season. But she is one of those players who makes the wheel go and we need her out there. She had been in our program since 2007 and she understands the position."
The Lobos also have a capable point guard in 6-foot Caroline Durbin. Durbin played in all 31 games last season and had 14 starts. The junior is a talented enough scorer to have a breakout season. Durbin has healthy knees, but is coming off gall bladder surgery.
Sanchez also has help at the point in JC transfer Jayme Jackson, whose playing time should increase as she adjusts to the D-I level. "Jayme was playing a two-guard," said Sanchez. "She will be a combo-guard for us. It's tough for some people who are two-guards to move to the point at this level, but if can handle the ball, you can handle the ball."
Sanchez has a lot of versatility and talent on the edge. Her two shooting guards should be Taylor and Durbin, who are both capable of big scoring games. The 5-foot-7 Jackson also should see time in the two-guard slot.
Taylor shot 30.6 percent behind the 3-point line last year and Durbin shot 25.8 percent. Those rates need to improve. Taylor shot 85 percent from the line and knows how to get to the line. She shot 113 free throws last year, making 96.
The off-guard or three-guard spot also looks solid behind Torrance and the 6-foot Deeva Vaughn. This position could develop into a consistent scoring spot for UNM. Torrance is smooth and difficult to defend. When she plays at a high energy/aggression level, she is one of the top players in the Mountain West. She has double-double potential in scoring/rebounding.
Vaughn is a talent that doesn't look like she wants to waste any time on the bench. The Highland High product comes to UNM from Northern Oklahoma College where she averaged 20 points and 10 boards. She was a JC All-American, so her adjustment to D-I basketball should be quick.
Both Vaughn and Torrance are talented and mobile enough to play either wing spot or even go inside to the forward spot. Oh, yeah, Vaughn also had knee surgery in junior college.
The Lobo `Bigs" aren't that big once you get past 6-foot-5 Emily Stark, who averaged 0.2 points and 0.4 rebounds while averaging 2.6 minutes of playing time last year. But with the loss of Kielpinski, Erin Boettcher and Toben, there are plenty of minutes waiting to be gobbled up.
"I told Emily she needs to get out there this year," said Sanchez. "That's kind of up to her, too. She needs to keep gaining confidence and also needs to be assertive inside. She is tall enough to be a defensive stopper and we also need her to hit a shot or two and get some rebounds."
The returning inside player with the most experience is the 6-foot Erskine, who averaged 15.0 minutes (six starts) last year. The 6-foot Nnaji averaged 5.1 minutes in 20 games. Knee surgery kept Nnaji out of the 2009-10 season.
"Jourdan is looking good," said Sanchez. "She plays hard is more assertive inside. We don't' want her in there just hanging around. We need everyone to be thinking about scoring. Chinyere can go inside and shoot over people. She posts up hard. She also has a nice outside shot."
A key for UNM inside is the development of the 6-2 Johnson, who appears ready to come out of the D-I gate with an aggressive attitude.
"Whitney is a natural scorer and is looking really good," said Sanchez. "She has a ton of skills and goes at people. She plays hard, posts up hard. We might not throw her into the fire too early, but she is too good of a player not to put on the court. Whitney has a good chance to break into the starting lineup."
The post also features 6-2 Maddie Muraida, a walk-on from Albuquerque Academy. "Maddie is super," said Sanchez. "She does everything we ask. She is a hard worker, who has made herself a part of this team."
Sanchez says her defense in 2011-12 will be multiple, sliding from zone to man-to-man as the situation dictates. Her depth might limit full-court pressure, but the Lobos will have several presses in their arsenal to help control tempo.
On offense, there will be a combination of motion and set plays. UNM also will use a variety of screens to produce open shots for their array of shooters. The Lobos have no established go-to player returning with Halasz out for the year.
"We will have to figure out a few things on the run and a lot of that depends on who steps up," said Sanchez. "And that might be different players on different nights. We just have to be creative throughout the season and even during games. It's going to be a challenge."