ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — So what’s the point of this whole NIT deal, anyway?
For the New Mexico Lobos, there are a few.
Especially at the point.
While many fans ponder the usefulness of the National Invitation Tournament, a number of teams are taking the opportunity to work on stuff that could help them be part of the real March Madness next year.
Sure, there were teams in the NIT field like UTEP — which UNM whipped last Tuesday 69-57 in the Pit — that started all seniors, narrowly missed making the NCAA Tournament and just wanted to pack it up for the season.
But there are also plenty of teams like New Mexico, which get a jump-start on figuring things out for next season. Like who will be the team’s point guard?
“This does give us a great experience for our young players in a lot of areas,” said UNM coach Steve Alford. “Filling Dairese’s spot is definitely one of those areas.”
The Lobos, who play in the NIT’s second round on Monday at Alabama, no longer have point guard Dairese Gary. The physical and vocal 6-foot-2 team leader was the Lobos’ lone senior, but his sparkling career ended when he tore the ACL in his right knee during the Mountain West Conference tournament semifinals March 11.
The Lobos were going to have to deal with the loss of Gary — who started 130 straight games — next season.
Next season is now, and it’s tryout time for Gary’s successor.
“I feel real comfortable starting,” said 5-9 sophomore Jamal Fenton, who had a career-high six assists against UTEP in his first career start.
“… It was pretty easy, because at practice I’m always the opposite guard on the team against Dairese.”
Alford said Fenton will start again Monday, barring unforeseen changes. The Lobos left for Alabama on Saturday.
In the past few weeks, Fenton had given the Lobos a nice spark off the bench before Gary’s injury, helping UNM to win three straight heading into the MWC tournament.
During that stretch, the Journal asked Alford if he was grooming Fenton to take over the spot next year. The coach said the competition is up for grabs.
“I don’t think there’s any grooming going on,” Alford said. “It’s all about how you do and how you produce.”
Alford said there are number of point guard candidates next season, including current freshman shooting guards Kendall Williams and Tony Snell, high school senior Dominique Dunning — who signed a letter of intent in the fall — and redshirt sophomore Demetrius Walker, who transferred from Arizona State and sat out this season.
Australian point guard Hugh Green has also given UNM a verbal commitment and says he will sign a letter of intent this spring to become a Lobo freshman next season.
“Kendall is more of a natural point guard, and he’s played off guard this year,” Alford said a couple of weeks ago. “And I think we’ll have a lot of guys filling in (next season). It’s not going to be Dairese Gary — that’s a huge hole to fill. I think we’ll have a lot of different guys, by committee, that can fill that point position.
“Tony is a guy that can play point. Jamal can play it. Dominique is somebody that looks an awful lot like Dairese; similar ball skills and (a) physicalness to him.
“I think we’ll have a lot of guys who can handle the point position. Who will win that next year as a starter? There’s an awful lot of work to be done for that.”
Alford said Walker, who has missed a lot of practice time this season after knee surgery, “is in that mix, too. If we can get him healthy, he’s definitely in the mix.”
For now, Fenton is just making the most of his opportunity.
“I always just do whatever I can to help the team,” he said. “If they need me to start, I’ll start. If they need me to come off the bench and provide a spark, I’ll do that. Sure, I feel comfortable starting at the point, but I’ll do whatever we need to win.”
Capsule – Men’s NIT, second round: UNM at Alabama, 7 p.m. TV: ESPN. Radio: KKOB-AM (770)