By Dave Wagner: CNJ sports writer
PORTALES — Andrew Helton knows he has a big job, but he’s ready to get to work.
Coming off back-to-back 0-12 seasons in the Lone Star Conference South Division, Helton has taken over the Eastern New Mexico University men’s basketball program.
The Greyhounds (4-23 in 2008-09) open their campaign on Tuesday against Western New Mexico at Greyhound Arena.
“We just want to do as much as we can today and get as good as we can today, and do the same thing tomorrow,” said Helton, a former assistant coach under Ronnie Arrow at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and South Alabama. “We want to establish a toughness and an unselfishness among our players.”
ENMU’s 14-player roster includes four holdovers from last year under Shawn Scanlan.
Helton said the Greyhounds will be relatively small but fairly quick, and he expects to go deep on the bench and play a relatively fast tempo.
The returnees include 6-6 senior forward Equs Darby, 6-3 senior guard Dannon Wafer, 6-8 junior center Tommy York and 5-11 senior point guard Jimmie Marshall.
Darby was the team’s leading scorer (10.3 ppg) and second-leading rebounder while Wafer, who played football this fall and has just rejoined the team, averaged 9.3 points and a team-best seven rebounds in 2008-09. Meantime, York, the biggest player on the squad, has battled injury problems each of the past two seasons.
Marshall averaged 6.3 points last season in 26 games, including 16 starts.
“We have a much better team,” Marshall said. “After playing (last year) in the conference, I think we can compete and be a contender.”
Helton said the team’s biggest concern is its overall lack of size, but he thinks they can compensate for that with athleticism and teamwork.
“We’ll play, hopefully, primarily a tough man-to-man (defense), he said. “And we’ll push the ball; we’ll play very much up-tempo.”
Among the newcomers are three transfers, all juniors, from Tyler (Texas) Junior College — in 6-foot guard Reggie Nelson. 5-11 guard Alan Branch and 6-6 forward Tyler Jefferson.
“We wanted to (stay together) and in the end it worked out,” Branch said, adding that the return from football of Wafer is a boost. “We played against Damon in junior college, so we already knew what kind of a player he was.”
Nelson, Branch an Jefferson enjoyed success at Tyler, helping the Apaches win 24 games last season and posting back-to-back conference championships.
“Coach Helton has been pushing us and making us work hard, things that’ll get us better on the court,” Branch said. “People base things on last year, like ‘Are they going to turn it around or not?’ I’m not used to losing. My expectations are to come in and win a conference championship.”
Other signees are 5-10 sophomore guard Tralyn Harden, 6-4 freshman forward Michael Brown, 6-1 freshman guard Jordan Romero, 6-3 junior guard Josh Megyeri and 6-4 junior guard-forward Victor Reid.
Megyeri and Harden are junior college transfers who can shoot, Brown is a small-but-athletic inside player, Reid is another juco transfer who can score the ball and Romero was the dominant player the last couple of seasons on a good Santa Fe St. Michael’s squad.
Helton is pleased the Hounds’ 29-game schedule includes 15 home contests. They also have a trip to Division I member Brigham Young on Jan. 2.
“They called and were looking (to fill) a date,” Helton said. “It’s good for us from a recruiting standpoint and a money standpoint.”
ENMU was picked last in the seven team South this season. Midwestern State, which has won the division two of the last three years, is favored to do it again with Angelo State, Tarleton State and West Texas A&M behind the Mustangs.