New Mexico is the "Land of Enchantment" and one former local player is trying to lead his team to the delight of playing in the NCAA tournament.
For Justin Hawkins (Lakewood Mayfair HS), tournament play is nothing new. As a sophomore in 2004-05, Hawkins helped lead Utah to the Sweet 16 after earning All-Mountain West Conference honorable mention honors, averaging 8.5 points and 4.2 rebounds.
But after Coach Rick Majerus left Utah for health reasons, 6-foot-7, 210-pound Hawkins soon followed, saying he didn't fit in with new coach Ray Giacoletti's system, one that demanded he play more with his back to the basket. (Giacoletti resigned as Utah's coach Friday and will step down after the season.)
Hawkins wanted to play more on the perimeter and he found a fit in New Mexico State, where Coach Reggie Theus was creating an up-tempo approach that better suited Hawkins' talents.
So far it has been an enchanting match.
After sitting out last season because of transfer rules, Hawkins, a junior, has blossomed into one of the conference's top all-around players, averaging 15.6 points and 6.9 rebounds, both team highs. He also is second on the team in assists (70) and steals (39).
Hawkins scored a career-high 29 points in an 80-73 victory over then-No. 15 Nevada on Jan. 20.
He recently earned first-team All-Western Athletic Conference honors and was picked for the United Basketball Writers Assn. All-District VIII team.
Second-seeded New Mexico State (22-8) is playing host to the WAC tournament in Las Cruces and takes on Louisiana Tech in a quarterfinal game Thursday night, looking for its ticket into March Madness.
Although his season ended Tuesday night in a 62-54 loss to Texas Christian in the first round of the Mountain West Conference, New Mexico's Tony Danridge (San Bernardino Cajon HS) completed a solid campaign.
Danridge, a 6-5 junior guard-forward, started all 32 games for the Lobos and averaged 12.5 points, second-highest on the team. Danridge also averaged 2.5 rebounds and 1.3 assists.
Here are other selected former local basketball players who had fairly sizable contributions for their college teams this season:
Recently, Houston clinched the No. 3 seeding in the Conference USA tournament with a 74-67 win over Texas El Paso and at the forefront was a 19-point effort by guard Marcus Malone (Compton Dominguez HS). Malone, a junior who is a cousin of former NBA star Karl Malone, averages 6.5 points for the Cougars (16-14), who play Southern Mississippi on Thursday in the conference tournament. Malone, who started his career at DePaul, scored a season-high 25 points in the team's opener at Rhode Island on Nov. 13.
Colorado State (16-12) won't make the NCAAs without winning the Mountain West tournament, but the guard tandem of Stephan Gilling (Chino Hills Ayala HS) and Tim Denson (Corona HS/Fullerton College) is doing its best to make it happen. Gilling, a 6-2 sophomore, averages 9.2 points, and Denson, a 6-1 junior, averages 8.2 points. Gilling has started 12 of 28 games, and Denson 27 of 28. The Rams play San Diego State in the quarterfinals of the Mountain West tournament Thursday.
Just as New Mexico State benefited from the transfer of Hawkins from Utah, Troy also landed a former Utes player after Majerus left. Guard Richard Chaney (L.A. Verbum Dei HS) left Utah after his junior season, sat out last year, and in his only season for the Trojans was the team's second-leading scorer at 14.3 points a game. Chaney, a distant cousin of former NBA coach and player Don Chaney, also averaged a team-leading 7.2 rebounds despite his 6-5 stature.
Guard Kevin Bell (L.A. Fairfax HS) is Fresno State's sixth-leading scorer, but the 5-10 junior averages 9.3 points and a team-high 5.5 assists for the Bulldogs, who open the WAC tournament Thursday against Boise State. Fresno State is 22-8 and trying to play itself into the NCAA tournament.
Southern Utah didn't make it out of the Mid-Continent Conference, but 6-0 guard Justin Allen (Bellflower HS/Saddleback College) had a productive year for the 16-14 Thunderbirds. The senior started all 29 games in which he played and averaged 11.0 points (second on the team), 3.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists. Allen also has lettered in track for Southern Utah and is co-holder of the school record in the high jump at 6 feet, 10 3/4 inches.
With the majority of its players hailing from the South, Mercer University usually doesn't have many California kids on its roster. But this season, two contributed to the team's 13-17 season. Junior guard Shaddean Aaron (Claremont HS) blossomed into the team's second-leading scorer at 15.9 points a game after averaging only 4.8 last season. The other player who contributed and who looks to continue improving is freshman guard Isaac Gordon (L.A. Price HS). Gordon averaged only 9.8 minutes but played in 25 games, contributing 1.3 points and 1.3 rebounds.
Lehigh finished third in the Patriot League behind Holy Cross and Bucknell and struggled to a 12-19 overall record. But 6-10 center Philip Anderson (La Canada HS) increased his scoring to 5.1 points a game and 3.0 rebounds, playing in all 31 games and averaging 18.8 minutes.
Freshman guard Kyle Gibson (L.A. Dorsey HS) stepped in to give Louisiana Tech a lift this season, playing in 20 games, averaging 14.1 minutes and 4.7 points. The Bulldogs lose four senior guards — all ranked in the top six of the team's scoring leaders — next season, opening the door for Gibson to step into a larger role.
"From Here To There" is a weekly web-exclusive column that appears Wednesdays. If you are aware of a former area prep standout competing in sports and excelling at the collegiate level or elsewhere, please let us know. Send any leads, tips or ideas to: email@example.com.