GAME NOTES: The 23rd-ranked New Mexico Lobos tip off their 2013-14 campaign tonight with a first-ever meeting against the Alabama A&M Bulldogs at The Pit in Albuquerque.
Last season, the Lobos were expected to be a major player in the Mountain West Conference, but after a strong regular season and the title in the MWC Tournament, thanks to a 63-56 triumph over UNLV, the team was immediately ushered out of the NCAA Tournament by an upstart Harvard group, 68-62.
The team finished with a mark of 29-6 overall and appeared to have head coach Steve Alford locked up with a new contract, but just days after agreeing to an extention,Alford bolted for UCLA, prompting New Mexico to elevate associate head coach Craig Neal to the lead position on the bench. Neal was named the 20th head coach in program history early in April.
The Bulldogs are coming off a season in which they finished with just 11 wins in 31 opportunities. The squad had a lot of trouble on the road, securing only three victories the entire campaign.
Alabama A&M did have one positive moment at the end of the 2012-13 campaign when it defeated Grambling State during the SWAC Tournament, 59-51, in Garland, Texas on March 13, but just two days later the season drew to a close for the Bulldogs as they dropped a 72-59 final versus Southern University.
The Bulldogs don't have any household names on their roster, but head coach Willie Hays does have Demarquelle Tabb who for the second year in a row was named to the preseason All-SWAC First Team. Tabb was tops in the league last season with 306 rebounds, figuring out to just under 10 per contest. He is also the top returning scorer for the Bulldogs with his 13.9 ppg. At the defensive end of the floor, Tabb placed third on the unit with 49 blocked shots.
While Tabb handles action in the paint for A&M, the backcourt will be secured by the likes of Jeremy Crutcher and Brandon Ellis. Ladarius Tabb should help in the paint after averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds at Shelton Community College before making the transition to a Division I program.
Areas that need improvement for A&M this season, based on the team's numbers from last year, are field goal shooting which ranked 317th in the nation with just 39.9 percent accuracy, as well as free-throw percentage (.630), the latter coming in at 327th.
Kendall Williams, who was an AP All-American honorable mention selection last season in addition to being named the 2012-13 MWC Player of the Year, steps in as the preseason player of the year in the MWC for the Lobos, putting that much more pressure on the three-year starter. Williams, only the second player in MWC history to be named both the Freshman and Player of the Year, is someone who can do it all when called upon from scoring points (13.1 ppg), to handing out assists (5.3 apg) and playing defense (1.8 spg).
Joining Williams on the preseason all-conference team is Alex Kirk, a junior center who provides size and strength in the paint for the Lobos. The top returning rebounder in the league with 8.8 rpg, Kirk is also a viable option in the scoring department as well (12.9 ppg) who should take some of the pressure off Williams. The team did lose a critical piece in leader Tony Snell, a gritty performer who did all the dirty work for the Lobos, but the squad does retain the services of Hugh Greenwood who is a capable floor general.
Cameron Bairstow showed a burst late last season, averaging 13.8 points and 8.3 rebounds in the final seven games which is a good sign for the Lobos as they aim to show the fans that they can get the job done even without Alford prowling the sidelines in The Pit.
With so much talent coming back, and wanting to get coach Neal off on the right foot, expect the Lobos to pound Alabama A&M for a full 40 minutes tonight.