With perennial top-10 teams San Diego State and UNLV, the Mountain West Conference will be extremely competitive at the top this year. The New Mexico Lobos figure to once again be in the title picture and should remain a player on the national scene.
The strength of the Lobos will be their deep and versatile collection of guards and wings led by Kendall Williams. The 6-4 guard can do a little bit of everything; distribute the rock, get to the rack off the bounce, shoot it from three, defend, and rebound well for his size. Sophomore shooting guard Hugh Greenwood is another multi-faceted option who is actually the team's top returning rebounder. He is a better three-point shooter than he displayed a year ago and is one of a handful of players who can initiate the offense.
If Steve Alford decides to use a smaller, more athletic starting five, Jamal Fenton or Demetrius Walker are the candidates. Both players are quick combo guards capable of breaking down defenders and stroking it from deep. Fenton won't be able to suit up for the first three games of the season since he was suspended by the NCAA for receiving impermissible benefits. Alford's son Kory could factor into the equation after redshirting last season as can true freshman off guard, Cleveland Thomas.
Due to his ability to play several positions, Tony Snell will be a vital piece of the puzzle as well. Since he can play anywhere from the two-four, it allows Alford to use different lineups. Snell can also light it up from distance which makes him a tough defensive matchup for opposing defenses. Chad Adams and Devon Williams provide more versatility on the wing.
New Mexico doesn't have a whole lot of size inside. Cameron Bairstow was a valuable reserve a year ago and figures to compete with seven-footer Alex Kirk for the lone starting post position. Kirk returns after missing all of last season due to a back injury. He already suffered a sprained ankle injury during practice that forced him to miss the Lobos' first exhibition game, and keeping him healthy will be a key to New Mexico's success since he is the only true center on the roster. Freshman Nick Banyard is the only other real frontcourt option.
Alford picked up a key transfer in 6-7 wing Merv Lindsay from Kansas. He barely saw the court for the Jayhawks in 2011 and must sit out this season per NCAA transfer rules, but should have a bright three years remaining beginning in 2013-14.
The Lobos don't have the talent that the Aztecs or Rebels do this year, but I certainly wouldn't count out Alford from keeping New Mexico tight in the conference race.
Player to Watch: Tony Snell, G/F
Because New Mexico doesn't have a whole lot of size or depth inside, Snell's ability to play some four might be the x-factor this season. Defensively he may struggle guarding bigger, stronger posts, but his ability to handle the ball on offense will allow his quickness to take advantage of those slower bigs. Snell showed solid development from Year 1 to Year 2, and if that trend continues during his junior campaign, he will really make a name for himself.
Key Non-Conference Games:
11/13 vs. Davidson
11/16 vs. UIC (Paradise Jam)
11/18 vs. George Mason/Mercer (Paradise Jam)
11/19 vs. UConn/Wake Forest/Iona/Quinnipiac (Paradise Jam)