A record number of season tickets have been sold at the Pit, the Lobos' notoriously noisy home court, and expectations in Albuquerque are right up there with the mile-high altitude. "I can't go to the mall anymore," says sophomore center-forward Kenny Thomas. "Even on the freeway I'm recognized and asked how the team's going to do."
There is a reason for all this interest. The Lobos are coming off a 28-5 season, a WAC tournament championship and the school's first win in the NCAA tournament in 22 years. (New Mexico crushed Kansas State 69-48 before losing to Georgetown 73-62.) Further, the team's top seven scorers are back, including the 6'8" Thomas, 6'4" senior guard Charles Smith and 6'8" sure-shooting forward Clayton Shields, who give the Lobos a trio of threats as formidable as any in the land.
Coach Dave Bliss says Smith could be one of the best 2-guards in the nation if he improves his defense. Last year Smith, whose nickname is Spider because of his 83-inch wingspan, had 66 steals despite his erratic defense and as a result was elected to the WAC's all-defensive team. "The coaches got a good laugh about that one," says Smith, who needs 353 points to pass Luc Longley as the school's alltime top scorer.
As for Thomas, he almost didn't get to play last year. He had to go to court when the NCAA threatened his eligibility in a dispute over whether he had completed the required core curriculum of high school courses. When he finally took to the basketball court after missing the first three weeks of practice, he proceeded to win the WAC Newcomer of the Year award, averaging 14.7 points and 7.8 rebounds.
Even at 6'8" and a buff 260 pounds, Thomas will often play power forward to make room for 7'1", 250-pound junior Daniel Santiago in the pivot. Santiago, who began playing basketball only as a high school sophomore, has improved dramatically from last season, thanks to the time he spent playing for the Puerto Rican team in the Olympics. Santiago, who is known as El Gigante back home, inherited his athleticism from his grandfather Pedro, a well-known baseball player in Puerto Rico. Luckily he didn't get his grandfather's size. Pedro's nickname was the Jockey, because he's only 5'6".
Also, New Mexico can always count on its home court advantage; the Lobos were 19-1 at the Pit last year, and it should be noisier than ever this season. "The eardrums will be quivering," says Bliss. Blissfully, of course.