ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — At least in terms of this recent era of Lobo basketball, the freshman recruiting class of 2010 was the turning point.
When Craig Neal and Steve Alford, and several assistant coaches who have since moved on to other gigs, landed Kendall Williams, Cameron Bairstow, Tony Snell and Alex Kirk, not to mention getting a walk-on named Chris Perez, what was already an impressive rebuilding project for the University of New Mexico men’s basketball program took the next step into consistent league title contender and perennial NCAA Tournament participant.
Tonight, three of those seniors – Williams, Bairstow and Perez – will be honored after the Lobos (23-5, 14-2 Mountain West) host Air Force (11-16, 5-11) in the final regular-season home game for the team. That trio is credited with 102 career victories, and counting, placing them in a tie with the 2012 senior class as the second winningest four-year class in program history. (Both classes trail last year’s graduates Jamal Fenton and Chad Adams, who racked up 109 career wins in their time as Lobos.)
Williams, last year’s Mountain West Player of the Year, is wrapping up arguably one of the best careers ever seen by someone in a Lobos uniform.
Bairstow, a national Player of the Year finalist, is enjoying one of the best single-season performances in program history.
And, of course, there are the four years of dogged persistence by fan favorite Perez.
“Coming down the ramp for the last time, it’s going to be a bittersweet feeling,” said Bairstow.
Not only for the players.
“It’s going to be emotional,” Neal said. “The biggest thing is, I’m just telling them to do what you do. We’ll handle all the emotions after the game.”
Snell has moved on to the NBA, but his mother, Sherika Brown, will be in attendance to honor the boys who came to UNM with her son.
Snell, who is a little busy with his new job as a guard with the Chicago Bulls, returned two weeks ago during the NBA All-Star weekend to spend time with his old teammates.
Kirk, whose parents as always will also be on hand to honor the seniors, is obviously still a huge part of this senior class. Although after spending the 2011-12 season rehabilitating from back surgery, he is now classified as a junior and still a year away from any official Senior Night celebration of his own.
Of course Alford has now moved on, and so too has each assistant coach from that recruiting year, other than Neal.
Tonight, though, isn’t as much about them as it is about those three players who will for the last time don the cherry and silver for a sold-out home crowd of 15,411.