Originally written on Midwest Sports Fans  |  Last updated 10/11/11

The Non-BCS Watch List makes its first stop in the Mountain West to look at one of two teams expected to challenge for the conference title.

New Mexico Lobos

Looking Back

The Lobos finished 22-13 last season, but the road to get there was filled with twists and turns. After starting the season 10-1, they proceeded to lose six of their next nine games and stood at 1-4 in the MWC.  They then won four straight before losing four straight and ultimately winding up in the NIT, where they knocked off UTEP before falling to Alabama in the second round.

Steve Alford’s squad finished 47th in the final Pomeroy Ratings.  Their offense ranked 43rd, thanks to Top 70 showings in offensive rebound percentage, free throw rate, and effective field goal percentage.  Defensively, they ranked 22nd in limiting opponents’ offensive rebounds but ultimately did a poor job of forcing turnovers.

The team loses just one key contributor from last year’s squad, but it’s a big one.  Dairese Gary led the team in scoring and assists and finished second in steals.  After he tore his ACL in the MWC semi-finals last season, the Lobos got an early taste of what it will be like to play without their leader.

This Year’s Lobos

Former UCLA big man Drew Gordon missed the first nine games due to NCAA transfer rules, but he made up for lost time by averaging a double-double with 13.0 points and 10.5 rebounds.  He also led the team in blocks and made nearly 53 percent of his field goal attempts.  Gordon ranked third in the nation in defensive rebound percentage and 21st on the offensive glass.  Surprisingly, he got to the line just 90 times, but it’s reasonable to expect an increase there as he becomes the focal point of the offense.  Gordon looks like the early favorite for MWC Player of the Year.

Guard Kendall Williams is the reigning Freshman of the Year in the league after averaging 11.6 points, 3.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists, and 1.4 steals.  He also canned 42.6 percent from beyond the arc, which propelled him to terrific effective field goal and true shooting percentages.  With Gary gone, Williams will take on an expanded role in the offense, one which he should excel in given his ability to set up teammates as well as draw fouls and get to the stripe.

Joining Williams in the backcourt is guard Phillip McDonald.  He was the team’s fourth double-digit scorer last season and finished fourth on the team with 4.3 rebounds per game.  McDonald took more than half of his shots from deep despite a 32.5 percent conversion rate from long range.  He did a nice job of limiting turnovers and gives Alford another experienced contributor.

Jamal Fenton and Tony Snell are the other returning guards.  Fenton may get first crack to be the starting point guard after filling in for Gary during the NIT last season.  He posted 12 assists over those two contests, but he was plagued by the same poor shooting he displayed most of the season.  Fenton’s ability to cut back on his turnovers will be critical for the Lobos in the early going as they get used to life without Gary.  Snell took better than 65 percent of his shots from long range and had a few big games, including 16 points in an upset win over BYU.  Consistency will be key for the 6-foot-7 sophomore as he looks to expand his role.

A trio of returning players will look to complement Gordon up front.  A.J. Hardeman finished third on the team in rebounding and averaged 7.6 points as a junior.  He did a particularly solid job on the offensive glass and flashed decent shot-blocking ability as well.  Hardeman made 51.5 percent of his shots and has a chance to improve on his numbers across the board if he can cut down on his fouls.

Center Alex Kirk underwent back surgery in the offseason, and it’s unclear how much time he will miss.  In just 15 minutes per game as a true freshman, he scored 4.7 points and grabbed 3.7 rebounds.  If he can get healthy, he gives Alford another big body to use in his frontcourt rotation.  Cameron Bairstow averaged less than 10 minutes but hit 60 percent of his field goals and showed some rebounding and shot-blocking skills.  Like the other big men, he needs to do a better job staying out of foul trouble this season.

Swingman Chad Adams also returns to the roster after hitting 41.4 percent from deep in limited action.  He will miss the first two regular season games following a DWI arrest in the offseason.

A few newcomers add to New Mexico’s backcourt depth.  Aussie Hugh Greenwood averaged 17.1 points in the U-19 World Championships, which made a number of big name schools regret not recruiting him more heavily.  His international experience will be a huge benefit, and don’t be surprised if he eventually plays his way into the starting lineup.

Arizona State transfer Demetrius Walker (yes, the same guy from Play Their Hearts Out) is eligible this season after averaging 4.0 points for the Sun Devils as a freshman.  True freshman Dominique Dunning projects as more of a “glue guy,” but he has been praised in scouting reports for his defensive intensity.

2011-12 Outlook

It’s tough to overstate how much Dairese Gary meant to this team, but with Gordon and Williams, there is plenty for Alford to build around.  Add in the fact that BYU is now in the WCC and San Diego State lost a ton of talent, and the Lobos should battle UNLV for the conference championship.

The Lobos have a number of major conference foes on their non-conference schedule with road trips to Arizona State and USC along him a home date with Oklahoma State.  They are also playing in the 76 Classic in Anaheim where they take on a solid Santa Clara team in round one and either Oklahoma or Washington State in round two.  If they can make the finals, Villanova is the likely opponent.

Steve Alford knows what to expect from the likes of Gordon, Williams, McDonald, and Hardeman.  How players outside of that quartet step up will ultimately determine New Mexico’s fate. Greenwood and Snell are intriguing options in the backcourt, and it is imperative that Bairstow and/or Kirk can become a reliable reserve up front.  It should be a heated race with UNLV for the MWC crown, and I like New Mexico’s chances as a tournament at-large given the league’s recent track record.

Follow me on Twitter (@andybottoms) for more thoughts on college hoops, and check out the latest edition of the Bottoms Line podcast.

* – Steve Alford photo credit: Lost Hat Sports Blog

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