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Friday, November 28, 2014

Guard-heavy squad looks to improve on last year’s victories

assistantsports@dailylobo.com
@JROppenheim

The beginning of basketball season is a lot like Christmas time — sometimes it’s surprising how quickly it arrives each year.
‘Tis the season.

UNM held its Lobo Howl event, the traditional start for Lobo basketball, Friday night at The Pit. In addition to the slam dunk and 3-point shooting contests, UNM gave fans a glimpse of what to expect in the 2012-13 season with a scrimmage.

“Any time October hits, things start getting a little bit cooler, and it’s about time for basketball,” said six-year UNM head coach Steve Alford. “The Howl is symbolic — it’s the start of basketball season for us. The guys are excited about that.”

Local hoops aficionados are certainly hoping for more presents like the ones they received last year: Mountain West regular season and tournament titles coupled with another spot in the NCAA tournament.

The first step in that pursuit is on Nov. 12, when the Lobos host Davidson College at The Pit. The game is part of ESPN’s 24-hour Tip-Off Marathon on Nov. 13. UNM will tip off at midnight.

The schedule features several teams among the top 100 programs in the Ratings Percentage Index, including Valparaiso and Davidson.

UNM could face Connecticut or Iona, two more top-RPI teams, at The Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands.

That gauntlet comes before MWC play begins on Jan. 9.

Alford said last Tuesday that his team is “very healthy” heading into the season. The team includes 7-foot sophomore post Alex Kirk, who redshirted last year following surgery for a herniated disc in his back.

“That’s always a key thing for me: Are they doing the right things in the weight room?” Alford said. “Health is a great barometer of things. I think we’ve gotten stronger, faster, quicker and we’re healthy.”

The Lobos will focus on guard play again this season. The team has the daunting task of replacing last year’s star forward Drew Gordon, who had an average of 13.7 points and 11.1 rebounds per game.

UNM has two experienced men on the roster: Kirk and 6-foot-9-inch junior forward Cameron Bairstow. The team’s other dedicated forwards, Devon Williams and Nick Banyard, are incoming freshmen to the program. Senior Chad Adams is listed as a guard-forward.

The remaining nine players on the roster are all guards. With so many guards on the team and so few post players, UNM will utilize several four-guard sets on the floor.

“When we do have those four guards out there, they have to help bring down rebounds,” said sophomore guard Hugh Greenwood, who ran the point at the Howl. “With four guards, it’s going to be a lot of fun to watch. It’s going to be a great year.”

The Lobos bring back juniors Kendall Williams and Tony Snell, last year’s top two scoring guards. Williams ranked second behind Gordon in the 2011-12 season with 12.1 points per game. Snell was third at 10.5 points per game.

Junior Demetrius Walker may be key in the UNM backcourt as well, coming off a season in which he averaged 7.4 points per game.

“They have a ton of championship-caliber experience,” Alford said. “They played a lot of minutes, a lot of games. Those three are very, very potent at both ends of the floor.”

For the Howl, UNM split into two units: a Cherry team and a Silver squad. Despite some early rustiness and a lull late in the scrimmage, the players displayed quickness and perimeter shooting.

The scrimmage featured several different rotations, including, at one point, Kirk and Bairstow on the same squad.

“I think we took it really seriously,” Greenwood said. “The Howl is a little bit of fun, but from the first minute we were really competitive. I thought the guys had fun. The freshmen did well for the first time out at The Pit.”

Alford said developing chemistry is always a focal point for the coaching staff. He said players need to understand what their roles are and how they can contribute night in and night out.

“It’s all about toughness. It’s all about unselfishness,” he said. “It’s everybody buying in to what that role is, regardless of how glamorous or unglamorous that role is. That’s been a big part of our success, and if we’re going to be successful this year, the guys are going to have to buy into that again.”