New Mexico lost only one starter from last year's team that surged late, had the look of a team that deserved to be in the NCAA tournament by March, but just didn't have the résumé.
That, of course, led to grand expectations seven months later.
Facing its first true test in the post-Dairese Gary era on Wednesday night, the Lobos showed that that one vacancy might be tougher to fill than anyone had anticipated.
It wasn't so much that the Lobos lost to New Mexico State at The Pit in the first of two meetings between the in-state rivals. It was how ugly one of the deepest, most talented squads on the West Coast looked on the offensive end.
The Aggies are far from slouches. They're a very real contender for the WAC title this season.
But New Mexico had the look of an extremely vulnerable squad Wednesday, mostly because it got minimal contributions from its two most important players.
Senior UCLA transfer Drew Gordon — the Mountain West's preseason Player of the Year — was held to just 21 minutes due to foul trouble. Gordon was a double-double machine as a junior and is one of the country's most dominant rebounders. He had eight caroms, but was 0-for-4 from the floor and scored only two points.
Meanwhile, sophomore guard Kendall Williams — a preseason all-league selection and the heir to Gary's post — was 0-for-9 from the field and committed five of New Mexico's 22 turnovers. The Lobos only produced 14 field goals all night and never found a consistent rhythm.
Gary was one of Steve Alford's first recruits at New Mexico, hand-picked from Alford's home state of Indiana to become the on-court extension of himself. A player much in the same mold as Alford, Gary was gritty, hard-nosed and a consummate leader. He played through multiple nagging injuries and put his team before his body on a regular basis, but always produced in some way. His specific value to the team and the program was impossible to calculate.
Gary's college career met an unfortunate, premature end in the semifinals of last year's Mountain West Conference tournament, when he tore his ACL during an 87-76 loss to BYU. But Williams showed promise in terms of being able to fill his shoes, especially in that game and two subsequent NIT tilts. Williams showed that he was learning how to lead, which made for a dangerous combination with the elite-level talent that Gary lacked but made up for in other ways.
Plenty of media around the country pegged New Mexico as a potential power this season from the mid-major ranks, and everything is in place for that still to be an accurate assessment. Alford has a legitimate rotation of 10 solid pieces, and it's irresponsible to label anyone as a pretender in November.
The Lobos have a very manageable non-conference schedule ahead of them, followed by a jaunt through their Mountain West slate in a year where the league is quite top-heavy. On top of it all, they possess one of the nation's stiffer home court advantages.
All Wednesday showed was that while New Mexico has a ridiculous wealth of complementary talent around its core duo, if Gordon and Williams both have off nights, it looks like a vastly different team.
Before the season, New Mexico was given an edge by the Mountain West media over UNLV as the league's preseason favorite, taking 22 of 26 first place votes. Both teams returned deep, talented rosters, but UNLV simply had more unknowns, completely morphing itself to fit first-year coach Dave Rice's uptempo playing style.
However, one edge the Rebels had over the Lobos was a wealth of veteran leadership. That looks like it might be a bigger edge than earlier imagined, and New Mexico's transition into the post-Gary era could be tougher than expected.
- New Mexico
- Steve Alford