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Today we continue our countdown of the nation's top 32 teams. Why 32? Frankly, if these teams don't get to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament (i.e., the round of 32), the season likely will be termed a disappointment.
October 10, 2011
STRENGTHS: What makes New Mexico the preseason Mountain West favorite is that the Lobos boast an emerging star in sophomore PG Kendall Williams and the conference's best interior duo in Drew Gordon and A.J. Hardeman. The speedy Williams earned Mountain West freshman of the year honors after averaging 11.6 points and 4.0 assists and shooting 42.6 percent from 3-point range. Since he can sink perimeter jump shots, finish at the rim or drive and dish to teammates, Williams should challenge for first-team all-league honors this season. Williams will benefit from the tandem of Gordon and Hardeman, seniors whose games complement one another extremely well. The athletic Gordon - who began his career at UCLA - averaged a double-double last season because he runs the floor well, finishes adeptly around the rim and dominates the glass. Hardeman is more of a back-to-the-basket scoring threat.
WEAKNESSES: The biggest concern for New Mexico might be its lack of interior depth behind Gordon and Hardeman. With 6-11 Alex Kirk undergoing back surgery in August and 6-9 freshman Jarion Henry failing to qualify academically, the only reserve big man on the roster is sophomore Cameron Bairstow, a 6-9 Aussie who averaged just 9.1 minutes per game last season. The wing positions are an unknown. One spot likely will go to senior Phillip McDonald, a two-year starter who took more shots than any starter on the team a year ago, yet hit just 40 percent of them. Promising Australian freshman Hugh Greenwood, Arizona State transfer Demetrius Walker and lanky sophomore Tony Snell will be among those competing for playing time at the other spot.
[More New Mexico coverage: LoboLand.com]
OVERVIEW: Overshadowed last season by resurgent San Diego State, Jimmer Fredette-led BYU and another solid UNLV team, New Mexico will try to reclaim its former spot atop the Mountain West this season. It's an attainable goal considering the Lobos return four starters from a 22-win team and have the backcourt depth to absorb the loss of all-conference G Dairese Gary. New Mexico will have early non-conference litmus tests at Arizona State, at USC, at Oklahoma State and at a 76 Classic tournament headlined by Villanova. If Williams thrives amid high expectations, Bairstow emerges as a capable third big man and one or two of the young guards prove capable of making an impact, expect the Lobos to pick up some wins in those games and enter the conference season as the favorite, just ahead of UNLV.
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