Big East Media Day Notes: Pope, Freeman, Huggins

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By Ryan Feldman

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

New Mexico Lobos
Last Season: 30-5 (14-2)
Key Losses: Darington Hobson, Roman Martinez
Head Coach: Steve Alford

Projected Starting Lineup
PG: Dairese Gary 6-1 Sr.
SG: Phillip McDonald 6-5 Jr.
SF: Tony Snell 6-7 Fr.
PF: Emmanuel Negedu 6-7 So.
C: AJ Hardeman 6-8 Jr.
Key Reserves: Drew Gordon 6-9 Jr. PF, Jamal Fenton 5-9 So. PG, Alex Kirk 6-11 Fr. C, Kendall Williams 6-3 Fr. PG

Nobody outside of New Mexico thought the Lobos were going to have the success they had last season. They were projected to finish fifth in the Mountain West. They not only won the Mountain West, winning 30 games overall and going 14-2 in conference play, but they finished the season ranked in the top 10 in the country and got a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament.

After narrowly escaping No. 14 seed Montana in the first round, 62-57, the Lobos were eliminated by Washington in the second round, 82-64. With senior leader Roman Martinez and versatile star Darington Hobson both gone, the Lobos will have to replace that talent as they try to compete for another Mountain West title and get back to the NCAA tournament.

Hobson, who won Mountain West Player of the Year and was a Third Team All-American, did it all of the Lobos. He led the team in scoring, rebounding and assists. Martinez was second on the team in scoring and rebounding, and led the team in steals. That's a lot of talent to replace.

But Steve Alford may just have enough talent on this roster to step up and continue last year's success.

It all starts with point guard Dairese Gary, who averaged 13.1 points and 3.9 assists per game last season. Gary is an excellent defender. He will always be defending opposing teams' best guard. He is great at penetrating into the lane and kicking to open teammates.

Phillip McDonald will have to really step up this year and become a leader. He has an excellent jump shot. He knocks it down with consistency from anywhere on the court. McDonald averaged 10.1 points per game last season while shooting 39.6 percent from 3-point range.

AJ Hardeman isn't the most talented big man in the Mountain West but he is certainly solid. He started all 35 games last season and averaged 7.0 points and 5.5 rebounds per game.

But the frontcourt will get dramatically better after the first semester, when Drew Gordon will be eligible. At that point, Gordon will likely step into the starting lineup. Gordon was once an elite recruit out of high school and started his career at UCLA, but opted to transfer to New Mexico. Gordon is a very good rebounder and can score well in the post. He is also very athletic and mobile for a 245-pound big man.

Another big man who could start over Hardeman is freshman Alex Kirk. The 6-foot-10 center isn't very quick or athletic but he has solid fundamentals and can knock down outside jumpers. Kirk is rated by ESPN as the No. 7 center recruit in the country.

New Mexico fans are hoping that Tony Snell is the next Hobson. Snell is a 6-foot-7 versatile wing who can play multiple positions. He is a terrific outside shooter who can knock down 3-pointers as deep as NBA range.

The Lobos got a steal with Emmanuel Negedu, who transferred from Tennessee. Negedu suffered cardiac arrest last summer and was later cleared by doctors to play again, but Tennessee didn't want to allow him to play. Instead, he transferred to New Mexico and is immediately allowed to play. The 6-foot-7 strong, athletic forward likes to attack the basket and finish above the rim. He is very strong on the boards and uses his quickness to score in the post. But he must improve his jumper if he wants to play on the perimeter.

The Lobos are ready to prove that last season was not a fluke and that they can still be just as successful without Hobson. Gary is capable of leading this team, and the additions of Negedu and Gordon combined with a terrific recruiting class makes this team dangerous. With Gary, McDonald, Snell, Negedu, Gordon, Kirk and some other solid role players, there's no telling who is going to step up and carry the load. Believe it or not, no matter which players emerge, this New Mexico team has the potential to be just as strong as last year's team.

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