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19. New Mexico Kenny Thomas, a.k.a. Baby Shaq, is 25 pounds lighter and eager to shed his reputation as a postseason folding act

"O.K., what bad stuff are you going to write about me?" asks New
Mexico senior center Kenny Thomas in place of a more traditional
greeting. Thomas is kidding...sort of. He clearly has issues
with some of the scribes who have evaluated his job performance
over the last three years, particularly during the tournament.
Let's just say that around Albuquerque many of them are prone to
doubting Thomas. "Hey, I know I'm not perfect," he says. "But
who else gets criticized for getting 14 points and 10 rebounds
while being triple-teamed the entire game?"

Thomas, a 6'8" so-called Baby Shaq, has career averages of 15.1
points and 8.0 rebounds, and he has won the WAC tournament MVP
award twice. But in six NCAA games Thomas has vanished,
attempting just 39 shots, averaging 8.5 points and fouling out
three times. He should be liberated from triple-teaming this
season by the arrival of two tall transfers--6'7" Damion Walker
from TCU, a freshman All-America in '96, and 6'8" Brian Smith
from San Diego--and by more consistent scoring from junior
Lamont Long, a 6'4" slasher who had 31 points in one game last
year and zero in two others. After reaching a settlement with
the NCAA over a three-year-old eligibility dispute, Thomas will
sit out the Lobos' first five games, an absence that could work
to his team's advantage. "The rest of us need to learn not to
rely so much on Kenny and show what we can do," Long says.
"Maybe that will make us more dangerous in March."

That might be wishful thinking for the Lobos, who have earned
trips to six of the last eight NCAA tournaments but haven't
advanced beyond the second round. After serving 48 hours in jail
over the summer for an April DWI, Thomas showed his increased
commitment by shedding 25 pounds to reach 255. "I respect Kenny
because he could have taken the money and run to the pros, but
he knows he's not the finished product," coach Dave Bliss says.
"He has matured more in the last three months than he did in the
previous three years."

When asked about Bliss's comment, Thomas lightens up for a
moment. "Coach said that?" he says. "Sometimes I feel like I'm
21 going on 40."


COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN KEN DO? Often maligned, Thomas still shoulders the Lobos' load. [Kenny Thomas in game]



SF Brian Smith 6'8" So. 3.1 ppg*
PF Damion Walker 6'7" Jr. 6.5 rpg*
C [***]Kenny Thomas 6'8" Sr. 16.8 ppg
SG [***]Lamont Long 6'4" Jr. 14.1 ppg
PG Dontay Hicks 6'1" Jr. 6.7 apg**

'97-98 record: 24-8 Final rank (coaches' poll): No. 21
[***]Returning starter *'96-97 stat **apg as junior college