ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Alex Kirk, and his sprained left ankle, are just itching to get back on the court.
Lobos fans are eager to see it happen, too.
“It’s been I think over 500 days since he’s been in a game, he’s told me,” UNM coach Steve Alford said.
|Today New Mexico Highlands at UNM, 7 p.m. (exhibition), 770 AM More Lobos|
Actually, it’s been 594 days, to be exact, since Kirk scored two points and grabbed three rebounds in eight minutes of action in the Lobos NIT game loss to Alabama on March 21, 2011.
Kirk, the 7-foot center who sat out the 2011-12 season after back surgery, garnered some preseason hype when UNM head coach Steve Alford told ESPN.com in September that Kirk could be one of the best collegiate centers in the West this season.
Since then, Kirk had a solid, though hardly spectacular Lobo Howl scrimmage in front of fans on Oct. 12 and played less than a half of basketball in an Oct. 27 open scrimmage in the Pit before severely spraining that ankle, leaving him unable to play in last week’s exhibition blowout win over Victory University.
That will likely change today with New Mexico Highlands paying a visit to the Pit at 7 p.m. for the Lobos’ second exhibition game.
“He probably could have played (in Wednesday’s game), but we didn’t want to risk anything,” Alford said after the Victory exhibition, though the coach stopped short of guaranteeing Kirk would play against the Cowboys.
With Kirk hurt in the past nine days while, his projected back up in the Lobos’ four-guard/one post player starting lineup, 6-9 forward Cameron Bairstow, has made the most of his opportunity.
“I think Cam has shown tremendous strides,” Alford said. “He had 32 (points) and 16 (rebounds) in our intrasquad scrimmage (Oct. 27). … In our exhibition game he had 22 (points) and eight (rebounds) so he’s shown the ability that he continues to get better and we’re going to need those two guys up front to help us.”
But has what Bairstow, a junior, showed in late October enough to supplant the injured Kirk as the starter for the Lobos?
Alford is in no hurry to make such a decision. Frankly, the coach doesn’t seem to care who starts as he knows both, along with 6-9 freshman reserve Nick Banyard, will each need to give quality minutes for the team’s inside-out offense to work efficiently in the Lobos’ Nov. 12 regular season opener against Davidson in the Pit.
“We’ve never put a huge emphasis on the starting thing,” Alford said. “I think that’s stuff that, to be honest with you, fans, media spend a lot of time on. And that’s fine. It’s just never been a huge deal with us. … The last thing we want to do with Alex is throw him to the fire and he gets down on himself. We’re going to be patient with him. We know Alex has a chance to be an outstanding center, but he has not played for a long time.”
Bairstow, meanwhile, doesn’t seem to mind making the decision a tough one by his continued improvement. But even he knows the Lobos’ success this season comes with he and Kirk both playing solid minutes, staying out of foul trouble and grabbing rebounds.
“When you start there’s always going to be a bit of extra confidence, but it doesn’t really make a difference as long as I can contribute,” Bairstow said after the Victory win.
As for the potential return tonight of Kirk to the lineup?
“Rotations are a bit messed up with him being out,” Bairstow said. “Him being such a big body and a big presence, it’s going to be huge for us to have him.”
— This article appeared on page B1 of the Albuquerque Journal