The current era of men's basketball at The University of New Mexico has already earned a distinguished spot in the school's rich hoops tradition.
History will certainly reflect favorably upon the Lobos of the past two seasons, particularly the 2009-10 group, which won a school-record 30 games against five losses and repeated as Mountain West Conference champions in the regular season. UNM was ranked as high as eighth in The Associated Press Top 25 poll and earned a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament.
But for all their lofty achievements, the Lobos underachieved against the 11th-seeded University of Washington in an 82-64 blowout loss in the second round of the tourney. UNM still has yet to win back-to-back games in the nation's most prestigious annual event. One-and-done has been done over and over.
So the question remains: Are the Lobos now a two-win tournament team? They are almost certainly not a 30-win team - and that's not necessarily a bad thing. The Lobos have a more ambitious schedule (Arizona State, California, Indiana and Texas Tech in nonconference play), and the MWC has improved overall after sending four teams to the Big Dance last season.
UNM head coach Steve Alford faces a different challenge from past years. Alford is no longer building a successful program; he is sustaining one. UNM used the same starting lineup in all 35 games last season, but this season Alford has to mix in six new players and play alchemist along the way. The team is built around all-conference senior point guard Dairese Gary, and it returns 6-foot-8 forward A.J. Hardeman and 6-5 two-guard Phillip McDonald, who started last season. McDonald is the x-factor after he injured his elbow in an exhibition game and is expected to miss at least two games.
The Lobos anticipate good, if not great, things from transfer forwards Drew Gordon (UCLA) and Emmanuel Negedu (Tennessee). Negedu, a 6-7 sophomore, is currently eligible, and the 6-9 Gordon, a junior, will be eligible on Dec. 17.
UNM also has Alex Kirk, a 6-11 freshman from Los Alamos, and 6-9 frosh Cameron Bairstow to bang in the paint.
With all the beef and athleticism, Alford likely will tinker early and often with lineups. UNM will surely take a couple early setbacks for future improvement.
The Lobos have been mainly a four-guard team because of necessity and a wealth of guards, which continues, but UNM now has the luxury of playing some three-guard sets in a power game, which will come in handy against teams with length, like MWC-favorite San Diego State and preseason conference No. 2 BYU. The Lobos were picked to finish third in the conference media poll.
Still the Lobos deepest resource is their guards. Sophomore Jamal Fenton and freshman Kendall Williams can aptly back up Gary. Tony Snell is a 6-7 freshman who can get to the rim and finish, and Curtis Dennis (6-5, junior) and Chad Adams (6-6, sophomore) are returners from last year who can plug in where needed. The Lobos love to pressure the ball and force the pace of play from the backcourt positions. Alford can do that consistently with the glut of guards. The Lobos expect to be high octane, high energy and explosive.
But are they a two-win team in the tournament?