COACH AND PROGRAM
The early years of the 21st century have been mostly painful for New Mexico's rabid fan base. In the last eight seasons, the Lobos have made just one NCAA Tournament appearance and finished with a winning record in Mountain West play just twice, unacceptable results for a program that has ranked among the nation's top 10 in attendance 32 times in the last 38 years and never finished lower than 23rd.
Former coach Ritchie McKay delivered a memorable 25-9 MWC Tournament championship run in 2005 but he was otherwise too thin-skinned and erratic to handle life in the fishbowl in Albuquerque. McKay's to that point middling tenure collapsed into disaster with last season's 15-17 debacle that included a last place finish in the Mountain West.
The Lobos were spoiled by the success enjoyed by the since-disgraced Dave Bliss, the catalyst behind a stretch when UNM made seven NCAA Tournaments in eight years. Fran Fraschilla was unable to continue the success, and McKay certainly wasn't.
With the fan base growing restless and, more importantly, dwindling -- the average attendance of 12,853 last season was the lowest at the famed Pit since the NCAA began keeping atten-dance figures in 1970 -- New Mexico administrators think they made the hire that will return the program to glory.
They pulled what they believe to be a coup, hiring former NCAA Tournament hero Steve Alford away from Iowa. The hiring of Alford has reenergized the fan base. He has the resume to suggest he will return the Lobos to their spot among the league's elite, and there is little doubt about his ability to handle one of the often underrated aspects of the UNM job -- pressure.
Lobo basketball might be removed from the national spotlight, but it enjoys a passionate following, and with that following comes intense scrutiny. Alford has been under the microscope since he accepted the Iowa job in 1999, constantly enduring speculation about his future, most notably the idea of returning to his alma mater, Indiana. Alford led the Hawkeyes to a pair of Big Ten Tournament titles and three NCAA appearances in his eight-year tenure, but Iowa was never at the top of the Big Ten pecking order.
That won't be the case in Albuquerque. Their recent struggles aside, the Lobos have the tradition, facilities and support to match anyone in the MWC, and many power conference schools, too.
''The commitment that's at New Mexico in the area of basketball is the thing I was most impressed with,'' Alford said. ''We've got a lot of tradition here, and I think the opportunities are unlimited and I just think it's a very special place.''
Alford has taken the reins of a program coming off the indignity of finishing the season on a five-game losing streak, topped by a loss to TCU in what amounted to a MWC Tournament play-in game. But New Mexico's rise could be nearly as fast as its fall was precipitous.
New Mexico, which made a summer trip to the Bahamas, giving Alford a chance to get acquainted with the returning players, returns its top five scorers from a season ago and four starters. Scoring points shouldn't be a problem.
The challenge will be stopping the opposition. MWC opponents shot 49.4 percent from the field and 38 percent from three-point range against UNM, numbers that ensure a long season. The team's defensive woes were compounded by its struggles on the boards (-4.3 rebounding margin versus MWC opponents).
''We have to improve in two major areas, and that's our ability to guard somebody and our toughness,'' Alford said. ''If those two things continue to develop as we get closer to the season, we have a chance to be pretty good&[We have to let] guys know if they want to play and get minutes, they are going to have to guard somebody.''
The one guy Alford has that's capable of doing nearly anything is 6-5 senior J.R. Giddens (15.8 ppg, 6.5 rpg), the league's most gifted player. Giddens has NBA talent, but to this point has displayed rec-league maturity. He left Kansas after a nightclub brawl that resulted in him receiving 30 stitches and seemed to be perpetually feuding with McKay a season ago, serving a two-game suspension at one point.
Giddens, who didn't make the trip to the Bahamas because he had to take care of academic responsibilities, has one more chance to prove himself as a player and a teammate. He has tre-mendous athleticism and a good outside shooting stroke, despite making just 30 percent of his three-point attempts last season. Giddens has player-of-the-year talent -- it's just a matter of harnessing it.
Playing alongside Giddens on the wing will be 6-5 senior Tony Danridge (12.5 ppg, 2.5 rpg, .509 FG), the team's captain. Danridge, who hasn't missed a game in his Lobo career, has got-ten steadily better throughout his time in Albuquerque, and that ascent should continue.
The only player to start every game last season, Danridge is another outstanding athlete. He flashed the ability to be an explosive offensive player, scoring a career high 24 three times last season, but he will be looked to for steady production and leadership.
''Danridge is our captain and he is a special talent,'' Alford said. ''For us to do the things we hope we can do, Tony has to have a good year and he has to be consistent, not just with his play but with how he leads.''
New Mexico also returns senior guards Darren Prentice (8.9 ppg, 3.1 apg) and Jamaal Smith (8.0 ppg, 1.9 apg), both of whom have considerable starting experience and can run the point.
The 6-1 Prentice became the first Lobo with more than 100 assists (finishing with 101) since 2001, and he was third in the MWC in assist to turnover ratio (1.9:1), but he isn't a lock to start at point guard. Prentice, who averaged 15.8 ppg the last five games of the season, will need to play with greater consistency, Alford says.
Smith, a 5-9 senior, started 22-of-30 games last season, his first after transferring in from Indian Hills (Iowa) Community College. Smith, who was suspended for two games last season for his role in an ugly brawl with Wyoming, will have to take better care of the basketball (57 assists, 44 turnovers) and prove he can effectively defend opposing point guards.
Freshman Dairese Gary of Concord High School in Elkhart, Ind., who originally committed to Iowa but followed Alford to New Mexico, should push for playing time at the point. The three-star recruit was the 28th-ranked point guard in the nation, according to Scout.com. Gary, who can play either guard spot, averaged 21.8 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.9 assists at Concord last season. He should be a fixture in the Lobo lineup in years to come, the only question being how much time he will earn this season.
The team's most dangerous three-point shooter is 6-5 junior Chad Toppert (9.5 ppg, 2.6 rpg, .464 3PT), who made 30 more three-pointers (85) than anyone else on the team. He hit multi-ple three-pointers 25 times, including a career high six on three occasions. Both of Toppert's parents played basketball at New Mexico in the 1970s.
Alford landed another decorated backcourt player in 6-5 shooting guard Jonathan Wills of Mayfair High School in Carson, Calif. Wills made more than 70 three-pointers and shot better than 40 percent from beyond the arc as a junior and senior in high school.
New Mexico has the talent and depth in the backcourt to be among the MWC's best, but the play of the frontcourt will likely determine how much it improves. Daniel Faris (4.8 ppg, 3.4 rpg), a 6-9 forward, is the only returnee with significant experience. He started 10-of-32 games a season ago, and Alford said he may be the team's most improved player.
Faris, who along with Danridge traveled to Taiwan with an Athletes in Action team in July, is an aggressive player who will provide a solid effort every night.
''He is carrying himself much better,'' Alford said. ''He is confident right now. His body is in much better condition and shape. He's just matured as a player and a young man, and he's playing that way right now.''
Alford brought in a couple of sizeable junior college recruits to fortify the interior. Juniors Johnnie Harris, who averaged 7.3 points and 4.6 rebounds at Chipola (Fla.) College last season, and Monquel Pegues of Cape Fear (N.C.) Community College, who averaged 17.7 points and 7.1 rebounds, will be counted on for immediate production. Pegues, who is Cape Fear's all-time leader in points, rebounds, blocks and free throws made and attempted, will probably start alongside Faris. His ability to defend the post and rebound will be vital.
Harris doesn't arrive with Pegues' gaudy numbers, but he was a productive player on a Chipola squad that spent 10 weeks as the No. 1 JUCO team in the country and was a national runner-up.
Blake Harden (2.5 ppg, 1.9 rpg in 2005-06), a 6-5 senior forward, will also vie for playing time. A walk-on after transferring from Pepperdine, Harden wasn't a member of last year's team, but returned with Alford's arrival.
Make no mistake, New Mexico should be much better than it was a season ago. The team returns its top five scorers and the switch from McKay to Alford on the bench is a significant up-grade.
Just how much better the Lobos will be depends on several factors, including whether the returning players embrace Alford's insistence on playing defense and how they accept a talented recruiting class that will create significant competition. If Pegues and Harris, in combination with Faris, can provide the Lobos with adequate play, particularly on the boards, New Mexico could make a quick return to the upper half of the league.
New Mexico isn't going to go from worst to first, but it's not unreasonable to think Alford will provide the Lobos with a significant jump-start. This is likely to be the league's most im-proved team.
New Mexico Lobos
Last Season 15-17 (.469)
Conference Record 4-12 (t-8th)
Starters Lost/Returning 1/4
Coach Steve Alford (Indiana '87)
Record At School First year
Career Record 308-183 (16 years)
RPI Last 5 years 172-148-73-124-167
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS