High school senior Ashanti Cook backed out of his letter of intent and current Lobo freshman Jamaal Williams may soon follow, adding to the mounting list of challenges new basketball coach Ritchie McKay faces.
The University announced Monday afternoon that Cook and Williams were released from their letters of intent, allowing both to play at other schools after sitting out a year in accordance with NCAA rules. Cook will not attend UNM, but Williams remains on the team. However, other schools can contact Williams about leaving.
McKay praised both players and said he would not hold a grudge against them for doing what was in their best interests.
"We are looking for players who want to be part of this family and are proud to be a part of Lobo basketball," he said. "It is a little frustrating not having all the pieces of the puzzle, but as soon as we get this settled in the next few months, we will put together a game plan that will work and allow us to be successful."
During the past four years, 11 players have left or been dismissed from the basketball team, and Williams' potential exit would increase the number to 12. With Cook's departure, UNM has three scholarships it can offer this year. If Williams left, it would leave the Lobos' with seven scholarship players halfway through the late signing period.
Cook, a 6-foot, 2-inch point guard from Los Angeles' Westchester High School, had waffled about attending UNM after former coach Fran Fraschilla resigned.
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While rumors were abound that other schools had illegally recruited Cook after Fraschilla's exit, McKay said Cook's strong senior year gave him more options than when he first signed with UNM.
"I wouldn't say that he was recruited, but I think that other schools made him aware that they were interested in him," McKay said.
Williams, who was once on the same team as Cook, also is coming off a strong season that has opened doors for him at other schools. He is a 6-foot, six-inch forward from Corona, Calif., who averaged eight points and five rebounds for UNM this year.
"Jamaal is still practicing with the team and this isn't one of those deals where he says, 'Hey, I'm outta here,' - he's been great," McKay said. "I just think he's a young man who just wants to see if there's something better out there for him. Once again, there's no fault in that, but I would be really hesitant to say that Jamaal's leaving the program."
McKay said that Williams and his family had told him they would not comment on the matter and would consider the backlash his decision to look at other schools may draw when deciding his future.
"We want Jamaal to be a basketball player at UNM because he's such a great student and, I'm telling you, that young man can play," McKay said. "I'm strongly pursuing his staying at UNM, and he knows how badly we want to coach him. I just think he needs to go through the process, and I respect that."
Williams' decision would have a greater impact on the team that is short-handed inside following the dismissal of 6-foot, 9-inch forward Patrick Dennehy and the uncertain future of 7-foot center Moustapha Diagne, who suffers from a degenerative foot condition.
McKay dismissed Dennehy, who averaged 10.6 points and a team-high 7.5 rebounds as a sophomore, after Dennehy walked out of individual practice without permission. Last season, Dennehy shoved teammates and walked off the court in the final minutes of a loss at Air Force.
McKay said that he expects veteran guards Senque Carey and Ruben Douglas to take on leadership roles in preparing the team for the tough road ahead. Despite a daunting list of problems, McKay said he is used to rebuilding programs and still expects the team to compete for the Mountain West Conference title.
"I think that the character of the program is growing, and we're aware that chemistry and unity affect the outcome of games and seasons and that's what we'll continue to hang our hat on," he said. "We'll get talented players, I can assure you of that. We've been caught in a little bit of a whirlwind and now we have to deal with it."