They are back, all the starters and all the role players in the
pack of Lobos that made last season the best in New Mexico's
history. The team went 28-5 (19-1 at home in the Pit) and never
lost two games in a row. The Lobos won the WAC championship with
a title-game victory over conference standard-bearer Utah, and
their run, which ended one victory shy of the Sweet 16,
unfolded--we have to say it--Blissfully.
The veterans bring with them abundant talent, most notably
flashy off-guard Charles Smith, who this season should become
New Mexico's alltime leading scorer, and center Kenny Thomas
(page 102), whose dominance on the boards last year explains why
he is considered the school's best-ever recruit. But it is coach
Dave Bliss who leads these Lobos. "He keeps us together," says
junior point guard David Gibson.
Last season, Bliss guided New Mexico through a controversy that
threatened Thomas's eligibility and through the defection of two
players who bolted in disputes over playing time. He used six
starting lineups in the first seven games, then settled on a
fivesome--Gibson, Greg Schornstein, Clayton Shields, Smith and
Thomas--that worked well the rest of the way. Bliss's
let's-get-this-done-together philosophy resulted in six players
finishing the season with more than 50 assists each; it is no
surprise that he was named WAC coach of the year for the second
time in three seasons. Bliss's 67.5 winning percentage at New
Mexico has even league opponents singing his praises. "They
always play sound, fundamental defense," says Utah coach Rick
Majerus, "and now they really apply pressure with their offense.
They've got great firepower on transition."
Perhaps most explosive is Smith, now a polished senior, who upon
his 1993 arrival demonstrated lots of skill and not much
discipline. He didn't run the floor on defense early on, but he
did run amok off the court: As a freshman he broke into a dorm
room; as a sophomore he pleaded guilty to shoplifting. So Bliss
worked him harder than he did the rest of the team. The strategy
was successful--last year Smith averaged 19.5 ppg, made 66
steals and was elected to the WAC's all-defensive team. "Coach
turned my life around," Smith says. "It makes me want to play
hard for him."
November 15, 1996
The defensive attention commanded by Thomas and Smith frees the
floor for Shields, a dynamic if uneven scorer. Third-year
starter Gibson doesn't score much or dazzle with passing, but he
plays through pain and defends all over the court. "David
sublimates his ego for the team," says Bliss. "That sets a tone."
The Pit sets a tone too. Few buildings in college basketball are
as intimidating as the 31-year-old arena dug into Albuquerque's
southeast mesa, a place of high altitude (5,000 feet) and high
amplitude. "It gets so loud you can't hear," Smith says. "But
that's no problem. We're so used to each other, we don't need to
talk to know what we're going to do."
THE DATA BOX
Coach: Dave Bliss
Career record: 391-246 (21 seasons)
Record at UNM: 172-83 (eight seasons)
1995-96 record: 28-5 (ranking: 25th)
WAC record: 14-4 (second)
PG *David Gibson, 6'2", Jr.
Albuquerque native is rugged defender
SG *Charles Smith, 6'4", Sr.
354 points shy of Luc Longley's team record
SF *Clayton Shields, 6'8", Jr.
Only Smith started as many games
PF *Greg Schornstein, 6'7", Soph.
A big guy to take pressure off the Big Guy
C *Kenny Thomas, 6'9", Soph.
The Big Guy is out for more rebounds
Nov. 30 vs. Arizona
Thomas should dominate Wildcats' shaky big men
Dec. 7 at New Mexico State
Last time, Shields's 55-foot prayer beat Aggies
Feb. 1 vs. Utah
In last meeting, Lobos won league tourney final
Feb. 16 vs. Tulsa
Smith versus Shea Seals in WAC rumble
March 1 at Utah
Last Lobo home loss (82-64) to Utes on Jan. 27