ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Down in the far southeast corner of New Mexico, in a place called Hobbs, America, basketball echoes.
The local high school Eagles have a basketball tradition as long and rich as any in the country. But there’s another program that is starting to create a little national stir.
The New Mexico Junior College men’s basketball team is 10-1 and ranked 17th in the nation. Its only loss was a two-point heartbreaker to 10th-ranked Coffeyville when three NMJC shots under the basket in the final seconds failed to go in.
James Miller, who had been an assistant at NMJC the past three seasons, is now the head coach. Last season was the first time the Thunderbirds had made the regional tournament since the 1990s. This year, with seven experienced sophomores, even better days could be ahead.
“I think our team is good enough to win the league,” Miller says of the Western JC Athletic Conference. “And we have the best league in the country.”
The WJCAC includes South Plains College, which is the defending national champion and is ranked No. 1 this season. Howard, the 2010 national champion, is ranked No. 2. Then there’s Midland, which has won six national titles.
“I firmly believe if you are good enough to win our league, you can win the national championship,” Miller says. “Our league champion has played for the national championship six years in a row.
“I’m not saying we’re going to win a national championship, but on a nightly basis, we can compete with anyone in the country.”
The Thunderbirds are led by 6-foot-4 sophomore guard Desmond Lee, who committed to UTEP out of Booker T. Washington High School in Norfolk, Va. He averages 22.8 points, 2.8 assists and 5.3 rebounds a game.
“He’s a dynamic scorer who can handle the ball well,” Miller says.
More impressive, Miller says, is that Lee is unselfish, almost too much so.
“He’s not taking a ton of shots,” the coach says of his guard who is shooting 49.6 percent from the floor, 42.4 percent from 3-point range and 84.4 percent from the line.
Lee is being recruited heaviest by Baylor, Miami, Arkansas and Colorado State, although a lot of other schools, including New Mexico, have contacted him, Miller says.
The Thunderbirds also feature 6-1 sophomore point guard Robert Turner (9.3 points per game and 3.1 assists) from Augusta, Ga., and 6-3 sophomore guard Dekabriean Eldridge (12.8 ppg, 5.5 rebounds) from Dallas.
“When you have three good guards who can handle the ball and score, it’s tough to beat you,” Miller says.
The Thunderbirds are outscoring the opposition by an average score of 76.5 to 54.1, while making 49.1 percent of field goal attempts and 73.3 percent of their foul shots. They are holding their opponents to 40.1 percent shooting from the field.
“We’re pretty good defensively,” Miller says. “I tell the guys all the time, we have the ability to score points. When you have guys who have a knack to score, offense will take care of itself. We concentrate on defense.”
The T-Birds have players from Russia, Serbia, Senegal, as well as California, Nebraska and New York. Miller says he starts his recruiting in New Mexico, but the better players tend to qualify academically and go to NCAA schools.
Miller says NMJC has the league, the basketball resources and the structured academic environment to help players reach the next level, but admits it can be tough to convince kids to come down.
“Once they get here, they really enjoy it,” Miller says.
Winning helps, too.
NMHU: Cowboys senior cornerback Abdul Kenneh was named second-team AP Little All-American.
Kenneh, from London, had six interceptions for 191 yards and two touchdowns. He also had 67 tackles and a sack.
WNMU: More than 50 Western New Mexico athletes handed out gifts at Jose Barrios Elementary in Silver City this week.
… Admission for both the men’s and women’s basketball games today and Saturday will be free. The games are also part of a Toys for Tots program.
ENMU: Dennis Hardwell, a junior forward from Los Angeles, was named Lone Star Conference Defensive Player of the Week for the second straight week. In two games, Hardwell had 12 defensive boards, five blocked shots and six steals.
ALSO: Moriarty grad Kristin Valencia averaged 11.5 points, 12.5 rebounds and 4.0 assists to lead Metro State to road victories over UC Colorado Springs and CSU Pueblo last week.
— This article appeared on page D4 of the Albuquerque Journal