With the exception of your Luke Longleys, New Mexico has never been like New York — a skyline of imposing towers, unobstructed, panoramic viewpoints and heightened awareness.
Our two tallest buildings are Bank of Albuquerque and the Hyatt. Or, for all intents and purposes, Will Brown and A.J. Hardeman.
Yet for every 7-foot 2-inch Longley, you have your Kenny Thomas — an undersized rebounding ball hawk, considered an NBA small forward.
If Brown, 6’9’’, and Hardeman, 6’8’’, have proved anything this year — and, in particular, on Saturday at The Pit against Colorado State — it’s this: Size doesn’t matter. And all that talk about the Lobos lacking a true center has, so far, been much ado about nothing.
More on that later. First, the back story:
Isaiah Rusher’s unceremonious booting off of the team before the start of the 2009-10 season triggered an intense discussion about who would anchor the Lobos’ center position.
Early on, the candidates looked remarkably unimpressive. And, as a result, it was pitted as the Lobos’ pancaking point, where their disjointedness would lead to crumbling.
Hardeman, at times, looked softer than Charmin. Brown, for all the on-court bleating and chest pounding, couldn’t keep himself on the hardwood for academic reasons at the beginning of the season.
That gaping void was looking more like a black hole, but it has since been negated by UNM’s Waste Management Crew. Consistently, Brown and Hardeman have cleaned up the garbage on the boards for UNM.
It wasn’t always that way.
Cast in the shadow of Darington Hobson and Roman Martinez, Brown and Hardeman were cloaked in a cape of obscurity.
Recently, the duo — Hardeman and Brown — has gone from being overlooked (by other teams) to formidable frontrunners, and even focal points for opposing coaches.
Hardeman scored a career-high 18 points against Wyoming on Jan. 16 and was named Mountain West Conference Player of the Week. Meanwhile, Brown and Hardeman had strong performances against CSU.
Hardeman, who doesn’t look overly daunting, showed brute force on Saturday, absorbing fouls and finishing at the hoop. He finished with five points and five rebounds.
Brown, on the other hand, had a freakishly fine fade-away jumper from inwards of eight-to-10 feet, in addition to the requisite two-handed slams. He finished with six points and four rebounds.
Martinez was asked if Hardeman and Brown were backseat occupants on opponents’ scouting reports, because teams would key on the frontcourt of Martinez and Hobson.
“I don’t think so anymore,” Martinez said. “They’re bigs who can do a lot of things. They’re starting to score more every game. It’s going to be tough to guard them later in the year.”
Still, there are kinks to work out. After all, Brown watched a gimme-dunk recoil off the rim and bound into the air.
Fluke plays aside, Martinez said doubted Hardeman and Brown would eventually come into their own.
“Coming into the year, I knew they were going to have a great year,” he said. “They’ve proved it. We call (them) the two-headed dragon. They get everything. You shoot a ball up, and you won’t be surprised if they get two rebounds in a row.”
Though Brown and Hardeman’s stats were robust, Colorado State’s coach Tim Miles said the tandem was bigger than their final stats suggested, specifically in the offensive rebounding category, where the two combined for seven offensive rebounds to Colorado State’s five.
“Any shot at the rim is a good shot (for the Lobos),” Miles said. “Brown and Hardeman came in and cleaned up. Those guys get to the front of the rim. There’s no question about that.”
Lobo head coach Steve Alford said teams thought they’d be able to bully the Lobos inside, but Hardeman and Brown have been enforcers.
“Teams look at us, and we’re not big, and they want to attack our inside,” he said. “I just think A.J. and Will have really improved week to week. They’re a big, big difference in why we’re playing well.”
Brown and Hardeman are undersized for post players. But together, they’re 13-feet, 5-inches tall, which is more than enough for the Lobos. And the Lobos are a better team with them than without.