ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- After the most successful season in school history, coach Steve Alford has established a high standard for his New Mexico program.
Time to see how a young team meets the challenge.
Alford will have eight freshmen and sophomores among a 12-deep rotation. It might be equal parts exciting and frustrating for New Mexico fans as this group delivers an encore to last season's 30-5 record, an outright Mountain West title and the school's first NCAA appearance in five years.
"The blueprint has been laid," said Alford, starting his fourth season in Albuquerque. "The new guys are coming into a program that understands championships, understands winning. The demeanor, the things we want, all that is in place. The pressure is in living up to that."
Gone from last year's Lobos are graduated sharpshooter Roman Martinez, the team's tough-as-nails emotional leader, and Darington Hobson, who left for the NBA draft and took the versatility in scoring, rebounding and assists that made him a catalyst on the floor.
The good news is that rough-and-tumble point guard Dairese Gary is back as a senior, and he's sure to be a steadying force. The first player to sign with New Mexico after Alford was hired, Gary has been in the lineup for 76 victories and 97 straight starts.
Without question, this will be Gary's team.
"Dairese is just a winner," Alford said. "And if we're only going to have one senior, I'm glad that senior is the point guard. Dairese is the guy who starts things off. He starts our defense. It's good having him for one more year."
The Lobos open Saturday night against visiting Detroit, the first regular-season game at The Pit after a spectacular $60 million renovation that lasted almost two years.
Two players who are expected to make big contributions won't be on the floor.
Shooting guard Phillip McDonald hurt the elbow on his shooting arm in an exhibition game and could miss at least two contests. Forward Drew Gordon, a 6-foot-9, 245-pound transfer from UCLA, is recovering from knee surgery and isn't eligible anyway until Dec. 17.
When Gordon becomes available, the Lobos will have a more forceful inside presence than at any time earlier in Alford's watch.
"I'm a garbage man. I like to rebound," Gordon said. "I don't like anyone to push me around under the basket."
Gary added: "We have a bully now. Drew is tough-minded."
Along with the return of 6-8 forward A.J. Hardeman, New Mexico got bigger after recruiting 6-7 Emmanuel Negedu, a transfer from Tennessee, and two tall freshmen in 6-9 Australian forward Cameron Bairstow and 6-11 center Alex Kirk.
"Definitely, we've got a post presence that we haven't had for the last three years," Alford said.
Jamal Fenton looked solid in the preseason and will back up Gary at the point, while the Lobos have Curtis Dennis and Chad Adams to help McDonald on the wing.
Fans are no doubt eager to learn what they'll see in freshmen Tony Snell, a rangy 6-7 guard, as well as 6-3 shooting guard Kendall Williams and 6-foot walk-on Chris Perez.
"We like our talent but we're just really young," Alford said.
New Mexico was picked third in the Mountain West preseason polls behind San Diego State and BYU. That's higher than the Lobos were forecast during the past two years, when they ultimately shared a conference title and won it outright last season.
New Mexico also started last season below the national radar but assembled several winning streaks, broke into the Top 25 and climbed as high as No. 8. The Lobos beat Montana in the NCAA tournament's opening round but then lost to Washington.
For the Lobos to make another run, a young team must come together.
"Last year we had a little taste of the NCAAs," Gary said. "We want more. We've set goals but we'll need to take a lot of little steps to reach them."