You know things are going well when a coach can joke about having suspended his leading scorer and assist leader.
Was Kendall Williams’ suspension for Saturday’s 72-45 throttling of Fresno State — due to his tardiness for a team meeting — strictly a one-game thing?
“I’m still determining it,” Lobos coach Steve Alford said with a smile, “because we’ve got a lot of team meetings between now and (the next game.)”
The last time Williams was late for a team function, Alford was in no mood to make jokes. On Dec. 22, Williams and Chad Adams were held out of the starting lineup against South Dakota State because of their tardiness. The Lobos struggled from the start, never recovered — despite Williams’ 21 points in 34 minutes off the bench — and suffered an embarrassing loss that temporarily knocked them out of the national rankings.
Saturday, Williams’ absence from the lineup bothered the Lobos approximately as much as Fresno State did.
“We’ve learned from that (the South Dakota State experience),” said junior forward Cameron Bairstow, who started as part of a reshuffled lineup. “While guys are out, guys have got to step up when that happens.
“I think against South Dakota State we were affected by it, but tonight we did a good job of being through that experience before and knowing how to handle it a little bit better.”
No one handled it better than Bairstow, who made all six of his first-half field-goal attempts and finished with a career-high 16 points.
Junior guard Tony Snell might not have handled the situation better than Bairstow did, but probably as well. The too-often passive Snell scored 16 points, his highest output since Nov. 18, and took the ball hard to the basket.
“I figured since one of our players, Kendall Williams, sat out, couldn’t play, I had to step up my game,” Snell said. “(Williams’ absence) was definitely a distraction, but we as a team had to try to put that behind us and focus on what we had now.”
What the Lobos have now, having played a full game without their leading scorer and assist man, might be more than anyone realized.
The tandem of Bairstow and 7-foot sophomore Alex Kirk was devastating; the two, playing together for almost half the game, combined for 35 points and 19 rebounds.
And if Snell can play with the same aggressiveness Wednesday on the road against Boise State, the surprise team of the Mountain West Conference thus far, the anticipated reinsertion of Williams to the lineup will go that much more smoothly.
Regarding Williams, his second punishment for lateness certainly is no laughing matter — even though Alford could joke about it moments after a 27-point win.
Alford was in no mood for fire and brimstone, but he made it clear Williams needs to get the message. Is the coach frustrated?
“When you’re dealing with 18- to 22-year-olds, frustration’s always gonna be part of the job at some point,” Alford said. “But you just hope guys learn lessons, and one of the things we’re in this for is to keep guys accountable. And being accountable is making sure you do what’s got to be done within the framework of the team.
“I would hope that Kendall responds and does the right thing. He’s a terrific player, and he’s a terrific individual. We make mistakes. He’s got to learn from it, and hopefully he’ll be better because of it.”
Like Bairstow and Snell, Alford felt his players took a negative in the form of Williams’ absence and made it a positive.
“We had some adversity against South Dakota State and we didn’t handle it very well,” he said. “… It’s not like you want adversity all the time, but when you do have adversity, how do you respond?
“I thought our guys really responded well.”
Now, how does Williams respond? If he thought he was indispensable, Saturday’s Kendall-free rout of Fresno State might convince him otherwise.
But Fresno State (6-9, 0-2 in Mountain West play) is only Fresno State; this is a New Mexico team (15-2, 2-0) that has had nine games decided by fewer than 10 points. They need Kendall Williams.
Williams needs a wake-up call, figuratively and possibly literally.
Perhaps Saturday was it.
— This article appeared on page D1 of the Albuquerque Journal