The way the summer went for New Mexico, you would think that their chances of ever being successful again were stripped away from them. After experiencing a rebirth under Steve Alford, the last six seasons for the Lobos were some of the best in recent memory. Knowing the importance of good coaching, the team was in the process of banging out a ten year contract for their coach to keep the good times rolling.
Then UCLA came calling and Alford was gone. The man who had pulled New Mexico back from the brink of irrelevance had been tempted by the glory of coaching for a historic program like the Bruins and was leaving the Lobos in his wake. If you were to believe some of the pundits, this was a death knell of catastrophic proportions for the program. Such is the way the media reacts to any sort of news. Kentucky should already be crowned the 2013-14 NCAA champions and teams like Butler and New Mexico who have lost their long standing coaches, may as well be brought out back and given the old yeller treatment.
While losing Alford is obviously not an ideal situation for New Mexico, it doesn’t mean they are also losing all of their capable players. A coach is an important part of a basketball team but the winning and losing ultimately comes down to player performance. When it comes to the New Mexico Lobos, their players have talent and have already shown it in the past. Behind center Alex Kirk and guard Kendall Williams, the Lobos could have one of the best rosters in the Mountain West conference. In addition to those two players, added help should come from both Hugh Greenwood and Cameron Bairstow. Overall, the Lobos have the most options ready to go from day one in their conference and that is almost inarguable.
While Kirk’s rebouding and paint defense will be important, it is arguable that Kendall Williams is the Lobos’ most important player. Last season, he showed the ability to both distribute and score the ball. His ability to score was especially on display, even putting together a 44 point performance against Colorado State that was one of the most dominant outputs in recent NCAA memory.
In addition to keeping its core roster, most teams around New Mexico are expected to regress this season. UNLV lost Anthony Bennett to the NBA, had he stayed for his sophomore season, the Running Rebels would have been a scary team. Without Bennett, while they will still compete, they will have much more trouble putting up offense to keep up with the Lobos.
The same could be said of San Diego State. While Steve Fisher has done an admirable job putting together some great teams since he has arrived to the Aztecs, this could be the first year Fisher does not have a standout to lean on. Jamaal Franklin is gone and so is Chase Tapley. The burden of the offense will be placed mostly on Winston Shepard, a sophomore who had big expectations as a freshman but struggled to adjust to the NCAA game. If Shepard isn’t able to reach a higher level of competition, the Aztecs could find themselves sinking in the conference.
Ultimately, New Mexico’s biggest challenge will likely come from Boise State. The Broncos had a great season last year and have returned almost all of their best players. Derrick Marks will be given the green light to shoot as much as he wants and overall, the Broncos are a team that takes of the ball extremely well. They limit their turnovers and play a slow paced, half court oriented system that tries to suck the life out of the opposition.
Though they may have lost their big name coach to another school, all is not lost in New Mexico. Despite what others may be saying, the Lobos should not be discounted as legitimate contenders on the national stage and once their season starts and they take the court, the players will show everyone why.