COACH AND PROGRAM
Talk about a first impression. In his first season as coach at New Mexico, Steve Alford led the Lobos to 24 wins, including eight on the road. Both tied school records.
The Lobos went from a tie for last place in the Mountain West in 2006-07 to third place, and their 11 conference victories was the most in 10 years.
"We were just excited to get 24 wins under our belt," said the 44-year-old Alford, who has 333 career wins as a head coach at four different schools. "With two weeks to go we were still in the league race and ended up third. We made it to the postseason and did a lot of good things along the way. More importantly, I hope it's just the foundation in what we're trying to build. Now we have to build on it."
There's a lot to build with. The Lobos return four starters and welcome a recruiting class that was ranked ninth nationally by ESPN.com.
That's the good news, but the bad news is New Mexico must replace one of the conference's best players in senior guard J.R. Giddens (16.3 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 3.1 apg, 1.2 bpg), who signed with the Boston Celtics this summer.
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New Mexico Lobos
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|Last Season||24-9 (.727)|
|Conference Record||11-5 (3rd)|
|Coach||Steve Alford (Indiana '87)|
|Record At School||24-9 (1 year)|
|Career Record||333-192 (17 years)|
|RPI Last 5 years||146-67-121-166-59|
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<!-- end whole table -->Giddens was co-player of the year in the league, and became the first guard to lead the conference in rebounding.
"J.R. learned what unselfish basketball is about and how to play that way," Alford said. "As a result he had a brilliant year. He was a very good leader for us and did so many positive things for us on and off the floor.
"He did that by thinking about his teammates first. That's always a key to a successful season, and this season won't be any different."
New Mexico has three senior returnees who Alford will count on for leadership and productioncombo guards Chad Toppert and Tony Danridge, and center Daniel Faris.
All three begin their fifth year in the program.
The 6-7 Toppert (#33, 10.3 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 1.5 apg) was second on the team in scoring last season. He is tops in school history and second in the Mountain West with a career shooting percentage of .457 from three-point range, and he's been ranked in the top 10 nationally in three-point shooting each of the last two seasons.
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<!-- end whole table -->Danridge (#32), at 6-5, sat out last season because he broke a bone in his left leg before the start of practice. As a junior he was second on the team in scoring (12.5 ppg). He has played in 95 games, including 59 starts. He was a third team all-conference pick as a junior.
"Tony's been terrific," Alford said. "He's gotten bigger and stronger, so the fifth year has helped him. He's changed with his maturity, his body and how he handles his body. I think he's pretty motivated.
"Both Danridge and Toppert are really, really talented and both can score. Both of them shoot the basketball well."
Alford couldn't have been happier with the production he got last season from the 6-9, 235-pound Faris (#53, 9.2 ppg, 4.5 rpg). And Alford is excited about Faris' potential this season.
"Daniel is someone that keeps getting better and better," he said. "We're obviously excited about him. I think he's going to be a catalyst in what we do inside. "We have pretty good leadership with our seniors. Hopefully those guys can see what happened last year, yet see just how fragile it is when you go 24-8 and still don't make the NCAA Tournament."
The guy who gets everything started is 6-1 sophomore point guard Dairese Gary (#5, 7.8 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 3.2 apg). He started the last 28 games last season and became only the fifth freshman in school history to hand out more than 100 assists.
"He's a bulldog and he's a winner," Alford said. "He takes care of the basketball. He had over 100 assists as a freshman, which I think is a great feat. But I always tell my point guard they are the quarterback of the team and stats don't mean that much to me. You're only as good a quarterback as your record is.
"He's a guy that offensively and defensively our program starts with." The backup for Gary at the point looks to be 6-3 freshman Nate Garth (#11), who Alford said is a much different player than Gary.
"Nate will bring us some good explosiveness. He's more of a blur," he said. "He's a very quick, up-tempo point guard. Dairese is more of a strength and power point guard. I think they will complement each other very well."
A second Lobo who started at guard as a freshman last season was 6-5 Jonathan Wills (#2, 3.4 ppg, 1.2 apg). The team was 14-3 in his starts, and he started in the final 11 games.
Junior guard/forward Roman Martinez (#30, 7.0 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 2.0 apg) does a lot of the little things and dirty work. He shot just under 50 percent from three-point range over the last 14 games.
Red-shirt freshman Kem Nweke (#42) gives the Lobos some much-needed bulk at center at 6-10, 265 pounds.
All five of the Lobos' recruits could play this season.
Joining Garth at guard is 6-5 Phillip McDonald (#23) of Houston and 6-5 guard/forward Curtis Dennis (#3) from Findlay College Prep in Las Vegas.
"Phillip is one of those guys that have the unique ability to really shoot the basketball," Alford said. "Watching kids this summer, he's as good a shooter as I saw all summer long. He also has great athletic ability to go with his excellent shooting touch.
"Curtis will continue the trend of big guard that we have at New Mexico. He's someone that can really shoot the ball and he understands the game. His ability to score will really help us."
The forward line will get a boost from a pair of Dallas-area prep products6-7 A.J. Hardeman (#00) and 6-9 Will Brown (#15). Brown was rated a three-start recruit and the top power forward signee in the Mountain West by Rivals.com.
"Those two guys are athletic and can score inside and out," Alford said. "They give us some of that firepower inside. We're a little deeper inside, and hopefully that's where we can compensate a little bit with the loss of J.R.
"I think our backcourt will be strong, but hopefully we'll improve in the frontcourt with that depth."
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
"I hope it's just an overall attitude and demeanor of what we expect in the program," said Alford about what he wants to build off of from last season to this season. "We want that on and off the floor and in the classroom. Anytime in year one you go through that testing period, and we had some guys who wanted to test it. They understand it now."
One player can't replace Giddens' production and presence. But New Mexico has enough talentnew and oldto once again be among the top four in the conference.
"We didn't have big numbers last year and now we have a full roster this year, but half the team is new," Alford said. "How the new guys blend with the vets will be a very big key. Our non-conference schedule is tougher and more difficult. I think our league will be up because we all return a lot of players.
"Like anything, you have to beat the right opponent at the right time of year."
It's hard to believe Alford begins his 18th year as a college head coach. He has never been an assistant at this level, and even though the Mountain West isn't the Big Ten, where he both coached and played, Alford likes his situation in Albuquerque.
"I think it's a terrific league," he said. "I love the arenas. From a national standpoint, most people won't be able to comprehend the kind of arenas we have, the players we recruit and the fan interest. I was impressed with overall attendance and attention from the fans. I hope the league is going to continue to market itself and continue to get bigger."
If Alford keeps it up in Albuquerque, which has long been a stronghold of college basketball, he'll more than likely get his wish.