Conference Rank: #3 MWC
2007-08: 24-9, 11-5, 3rd
2007-08 postseason: NIT
New Mexico could not quite keep up with BYU and UNLV last season and ended up in the NIT. Those three will battle it out for the top spot once again and this year all three could end up in the NCAA Tournament if all goes well. The Lobos return an experienced group and also bring in one of the best recruiting classes in the nation for a team outside of one of the traditional power conferences. Coach Steve Alford might have some competition from BYU and UNLV this year, but the future of the Mountain West Conference could belong to the Lobos.
What keeps New Mexico out of the top spot in the conference is the graduation of J.R. Giddens. The guard averaged 16.3 points, 8.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.2 blocks. All of those were team highs except the assists and replacing all of that production will be nearly impossible. Giddens is the big loss, but Jamaal Smith, Darren Prentice, Johnnie Harris and Monquel Pegues all played significant minutes. Smith, who averaged 8.8 points per game, and Prentice were both quality shooters off the bench and Harris and Pegues provided the frontcourt with the only depth they had.
Now the depth up front will have to come from Will Brown, A.J. Hardeman, Ken Nweke and Isaiah Rusher. Brown and Rusher are both 6-9 and tough players who will likely see a majority of the minutes in the frontcourt off the bench. Nweke, at 6-10 and 265 pounds, is a big body who can clog the lane and his year on the bench last season as a redshirt should have him ready to earn some minutes. The class gets even better on the perimeter where Phillip McDonald, Nate Garth, Curtis Dennis and Chris Johanson join the squad. McDonald is the prize of the class. The shooting guard has a nice touch on his shot and can score from anywhere on the floor. Like McDonald, Dennis is 6-5, can shoot and adds good size to the perimeter. The most important newcomer could end up being Garth. The team needs another point guard and Garth is the answer. He might not put up big numbers any time soon, but Garth is a smart player who knows how to handle the ball, dictate tempo and be a leader on the court.
Who to Watch:
But Garth only needs to come in off the bench after the stellar freshman campaign that Dairese Gary had last year. It only took Gary five games before he was inserted into the starting lineup and he stayed there the rest of the season. Gary is not the best shooter around, but he can hit the three-point shot. Much of his scoring was done by getting to the basket and his scoring output should increase this year as everybody tries to help replace Giddens' production. Chad Toppert, the only other player to average double figures in scoring besides Giddens, will likely find a starting spot on the wing. For part of last year he was used as a shooter off the bench and he thrived in that role, knocking down an incredible 48.0 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc. He is better suited as a substitute unless he can add another dynamic to his scoring, but he is too experienced and talented to leave out of the starting five for now. Jonathan Wills rarely put up big scoring numbers as a freshman, but he is a great defender. With the newcomers, Gary, Toppert and Wills, New Mexico has a lot of different options on the perimeter and Coach Alford will be able to mix and match them and put the players that give the team the best chance to win during any situation on the floor.
Roman Martinez will be seeing some time on the wing too. The 6-6 El Paso, Texas product spent most of his time at the four spot last year, but that could change with the return of Tony Danridge. Like Martinez, Danridge is undersized to play the four spot, but the high flying wing spent plenty of time as a power forward two years ago when he averaged 12.5 points per game. He missed all of the 2007-2008 campaign with a broken leg. The small frontcourt puts a lot of pressure on 6-9 forward Daniel Faris. Faris was second on the team in rebounding last year with 4.5 per contest. Without Giddens bailing out of the undersized frontcourt, Faris, Danridge and Martinez will have to work a lot harder on the glass and be much more productive than they have in the past.
Projected Post-season Tournament: NIT
Projected Starting Five:
Dairese Gary, Sophomore, Guard, 7.8 points per game
Chad Toppert, Senior, Guard, 10.3 points per game
Tony Danridge, Senior, Guard, DNP last season
Roman Martinez, Junior, Guard, 7.0 points per game
Daniel Faris, Senior, Forward, 9.2 points per game