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In some ways, the New Mexico Highlands University men’s basketball team took a collective redshirt season as the governor’s health orders forced the Cowboys to take the season off.
But everybody who was expected to play in the aborted 20-21 season has returned, said coach Mike Dominguez, a testament to the players’ commitment to the program and the school.
“We didn’t have a single guy transfer,” he said. “For our program, and basketball in general, that’s a big deal. It says we’re doing stuff the right way and we have guys that want to be here. That’s half the battle. They want to be here and play for the university, and are not looking for the easy way out.”
That means the Cowboys are bringing back six returners from the team that saw minutes in the 2019-20 season when they went 18-10 and tied for fifth in the conference.
From that group, guard Sammy Barnes-Thompkins, who did a stint at Boston College before heading west to be closer to his Phoenix home, is the unquestioned star. He finished that season averaging 25 points a game.
“He’s the best player in the conference,” Dominguez said.
Fellow starting guard Desmond Carpenter, a Cibola grad, is also back after averaging 8.4 points and 4.1 rebounds. Center Will Johnson, 6 feet, 10 inches, also returns to give Highlands a strong threesome of returning starters on which to build.
Much-traveled 6-9 power forward Andre Adams, who Barnes-Thompkins knew from AAU ball, and who also played at Arizona State and Southern Utah, comes in as grad transfer after averaging nine points and 6.5 rebounds for the Thunderbirds in 2019-20. He is coming off an Achilles injury, sitting out last season at Boston College.
“That’s a huge get,” Dominguez said. “It’s not too often that we can get a power five player. He’s healthy and doing well.”
Ja’Vary Christmas, a 6-5 guard, is another grad transfer, coming in from Idaho, where he averaged 6.3 points and 2.6 assists.
Bryce Sanchious is a 6-5 forward coming from fellow RMAC-member CSU-Pueblo and 6-3 guard Jonathan Ileleji comes in from Orange Coast College, where he averaged 17.4 points and 5.1 rebounds a game.
Returners such as 6-6 forward Darius Harrison, who averaged 7.7 points and 4.6 rebounds, and 6-4 guard Jalen Munn of Rio Rancho’s Cleveland, who averaged 5.1 points, will be battling for playing time on Dominguez’s deep roster.
The team also includes another eight freshmen or sophomores with New Mexico roots, including such locals as Journal North male basketball player of the year for 2019-20 T.J. Sanchez of Santa Fe High, along with D.J. Byron of West Las Vegas and Mario Archuleta of Pecos.
“We have a pretty good mix of in-state and out-of-state kids,” Dominguez said. “We want to have a deep team. Obviously, we’re going to be 40 minutes of pressing quite a bit. During our preseason stuff, we’ve run four times a week. We’re going to run. Not a lot of half-court stuff.”
It is that frenetic style of play that draws players, he said.
“Nobody likes to run, just to run,” Dominguez said. “They like it when they’re getting easy buckets. I think they enjoy scoring 90 points.”
The roster mix includes eight seniors, which is beneficial for overcoming the mass redshirt season, he said.
“For one, we have an older team,” Dominguez said. “It’s an older team of guys who have been in our program or other four-year programs at a high level. It’s definitely a seasoned group. Guys that I expect to win. That’s what we recruit. We want guys who think they’re going to win 20 games here.”
The coach has his sights set on returning to the national championship, which it accomplished in 2019 after winning the conference tournament.
“Expectations are right where they need to be,” he said. “But you’ve got to put in the work and the practice. But, with having an older group and having played at high levels, it makes it fun to coach and to be around them. Everybody has the same goals and expectations.”