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The Sky's The Limit

UNM Gets High Praise, Faces Higher Expectations

DENVER – Around Loboland, expectations are always lofty.

But this season, expectations for the New Mexico men’s basketball team are just as high in the Mountain West Conference.

For the first time in the 13-year history of the Mountain West, the Lobos were tabbed the preseason league favorites – and by a whopping margin.

Lobo Howl: 6-9 p.m., the Pit, free admission

On top of that, the Lobos placed two members on the five-man preseason all-conference team: sophomore Kendall Williams and senior Drew Gordon. Gordon checked in as preseason Player of the Year.

Lobo freshman Hugh Greenwood was named preseason Freshman of the Year.

“That’s what’s really nice,” UNM coach Steve Alford said Wednesday in Denver during the league’s annual media day. “You only have five guys on the team, and we get two. Then Hugh gets freshman of the year.

“We’ve had a lot of postseason awards in recent years, so hopefully this is a trend that continues.”

The Lobos, who open the season with a home exhibition game against Davenport on Nov. 1, collected 22 of a possible 26 first-place votes and received 203 points.

UNLV received the other four first-place votes of from media members who cover the league and was tabbed second with 183 points. San Diego State was picked third and Colorado State fourth in the eight-team league.

The rest, in order: Air Force, Wyoming, TCU and first-year member Boise State.

“Normally I pay very little attention to it, and I’ve said that before in years past,” said Alford, who enters his fifth season as UNM coach. “I don’t know if they’ve picked us right yet – but I hope they pick us right this year. But going into year five, and what we’ve been able to do through four years, this is a good barometer of where our program has been headed.”

San Diego State coach Steve Fisher, who led the Aztecs to a top-five national ranking and eventually the Sweet 16 last season, said he agrees that – on paper – this year shapes up to be a two-team race between UNM and UNLV.

However, he was surprised at the lopsided number of first-place votes in UNM’s favor.

“I do think Vegas and New Mexico stand out,” Fisher says. “My thinking was it was going to be 50-50, personally, for the top spot. I would think, given everybody that Vegas has back and the guys they had sitting out, that I wouldn’t have been surprised if Vegas had been picked first. Maybe they could have, and should have, been picked first.”

Both the Lobos and Rebels return four starters, but the nod likely went to New Mexico because of coaching. While Alford returns for his fifth season, UNLV is in its first year under longtime assistant Dave Rice, who takes over for Lon Kruger. Kruger left for Oklahoma following last season.

CSU coach Tim Miles said “there’s no doubt” the Rebels’ coaching change was probably the difference between the top two picks.

“The Lobos deserve to be right where they’re at, there’s no doubt about it,” Miles said. “But the thing is, UNLV is loaded. This might be their most talented class from the Lon Kruger-era. They are probably being a little underappreciated with four first-place votes.

“But it’s definitely a two-pony race. … They should both be nationally ranked, but UNLV has to come through that schedule. Their schedule is unbelievable.”

The Rebels appear to have the toughest nonconference slate in the league, with games against Wisconsin, Illinois, Cal, Southern Cal, Nevada, Santa Barbara, UTEP, Wichita State and either North Carolina or South Carolina.

“It is a monster,” said Rice, who was an assistant the past six years at BYU and was an assistant at UNLV for 11 seasons. “If we can survive some of those nonconference road games, I think it’s really going to prepare us for conference play. We do have a team with the experience that’s equipped to do it. But it’s going to be a great challenge for us.”

Senior guard/forward Chace Stanback and three-year starting point guard Oscar Bellfield lead the Rebels. Both also made the preseason all-league team, along with TCU point guard Hank Thorns.

The preseason newcomer of the year is San Diego State’s Xavier Thames, a sophomore guard who transferred from Washington State.

But the league’s biggest individual honor went to Gordon. The 6-9 post averaged 13.0 points and 10.5 rebounds a game for New Mexico last season as a junior, after transferring from UCLA during his sophomore season in 2009-10.

“I appreciate all of the love and support of our fans,” said Gordon, who is also a Wooden Award candidate. “This means a lot to me but I would never have been able to accomplish this without my teammates.”
Lobo Howl: 6-9 p.m., the Pit, free admission

— This article appeared on page D1 of the Albuquerque Journal