Oct 30, 2013, 2:00 PM EDT
All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here.
In 2012-13, the New Mexico Lobos put together one of the best seasons in the history of the program, winning 29 games and earning both the Mountain West regular season and tournament titles. The Lobos won the regular season crown by a full two games, going 13-3 in conference play after not receiving a single first-place vote in the preseason poll, a fact made all the more impressive when you consider the MWC was the toughest, most balanced league in the country. Point guard Kendall Williams won Mountain West Player of the Year honors.
But the season ended on a sour note for the Lobos as they were knocked off by Harvard in the NCAA tournament Round of 64.
Just over a week after the defeat Steve Alford accepted the head coaching position at UCLA, leaving many wondering who UNM vice president for athletics Paul Krebs would hire to lead the program. Much to the pleasure of many involved Krebs didn’t have to go far to find his replacement, promoting associate head coach Craig Neal. Neal spent the prior six seasons on Alford’s staff, recruiting many of the players on the roster and being a valuable voice in the Xs-and-Os department. While there are some differences, the hiring of Neal has given the program continuity when upheaval wasn’t needed.
With four starters, including Williams and center Alex Kirk, back for another run, the hope in Albuquerque is that the Lobos will not only remain atop the Mountain West but also enjoy greater success in the NCAA tournament.
“It was a very smooth transition to Coach Neal because he’s been drawing up our plays since I’ve been here, and he’s been an integral part of what we’ve been doing,” Williams said of Neal in an interview with NBC Sports. “He’s taken on more of an executive position in a sense, but in my eyes it’s been really smooth and a lot of the guys feel the same way.”
Neal’s move to the head coaching position is one of two major changes New Mexico will have to address as they begin the 2013-14 season, with the other being the departure of guard Tony Snell. After posting averages of 12.5 points, 2.9 assists and 2.6 rebounds, the junior entered the 2013 NBA Draft, where he was a first round selection of the Chicago Bulls. With Snell off to the NBA, the task of accounting for the production lost likely falls upon the shoulders of juniors Hugh Greenwood and Deshawn Delaney. In the case of Delaney, he’s continued to show progress after having to sit out the team’s summer trip to Australia in order to attend summer school.
“He had to stay in summer school so he wasn’t able to go on our trip, which hindered him some,” Neal told NBC Sports. “He’s really starting to pick things up. He was a little behind the ‘8-ball’ because he didn’t get those ten [pre-trip] practices, but he’s done very well. He’s talented, can score and he’s just a great, great kid.”
Delaney was a two-time junior college All-American, averaging 17.1 points and 8.6 rebounds per game during his time at Vincennes JC in Indiana, and the feeling is that he has the talent and athleticism needed to make an immediate impact. As for Greenwood he’s been more of a glue guy for the Lobos, and with an improved perimeter shot he’ll look to increase his production (7.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 2.4 apg) from a season ago. Also factoring into the equation are newcomers like freshman Cullen Neal, the coach’s son who was originally a Saint Mary’s signee before the coaching change at New Mexico.
But ultimately, how productive the backcourt is will fall upon the shoulders of the reigning Mountain West Player of the Year.
“I always work on my body and try to get stronger and more athletic, and I feel really good about where I am [individually] going into the season,” said Williams. “Also improving my leadership skills because we have some new guys and underclassmen to go along with the guys who returned. It was a matter of keeping everyone together and using my experiences to remain positive and lead a really talented group that’s expected to do a lot of things.”
For the season, Williams averaged 13.3 points, 4.9 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game. But while his individual numbers may not have been on the level of those posted by the likes of SDSU’s Jamaal Franklin and Air Force’s Michael Lyons, Williams’ impact on the Lobos exceeded what can be seen in the box score. If New Mexico is to remain atop the Mountain West that will once again need to be the case, with both player and coach also pointing to consistency as a key for the Lobos in 2013-14.
It doesn’t hurt to have a second conference Player of the Year candidate on the roster either, as 7-footer Alex Kirk is back for his junior campaign. After redshirting in 2011-12 due to a back injury Kirk hit the ground running, averaging 12.1 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per contest with nine double-doubles. Now another year removed from the herniated disk that required surgery and once again joined in the front court by the improving Cameron Bairstow (9.7 ppg, 5.9 rpg), Kirk is expected to cement his status as one of the top big men in the Mountain West.
“Alex has to turn into a dominant low-post player as far as I’m concerned,” said Neal. “Getting space offensively where he can catch it on the block and make teams play him and kick it out for shots, and be able to work with his left hand a little bit more. He really worked on that last year and it got to the point where he could go either way, and that’s tough to guard.”
“He’s also shooting the ball well,” continued Neal. “The one thing I’ve really been working on with Alex is agility and moving when he doesn’t have the ball offensively and defensively, because he’s a really good defensive player who has great timing.”
But regardless of what honors teams pick up in league play, the ultimate judge in the eyes of many is what happens in the NCAA tournament. In 13 NCAA tournament appearances, New Mexico has won multiple games just once — that was back in 1974 — so it goes without saying that there’s a strong desire to buck the program’s postseason reputation.
The 2013-14 season represents a new era in New Mexico basketball, and while the comfort level remains the same under Craig Neal the hope is that these Lobos will be able to go where they’ve been unable to in recent years.
Oct 26, 2014, 12:21 AM EDT
Indiana’s nine newcomers received their candy-striped warmup pants from former IU players Saturday night.
Oct 25, 2014, 11:24 PM EDT
Pat Birt was a Horizon League All-Freshman Team selection at UIC last season.
Oct 25, 2014, 10:07 PM EDT
Keifer Sykes is one of the best dunkers in America, and he was at it again Saturday afternoon.
Oct 25, 2014, 8:47 PM EDT
The intro video to Tom Izzo’s memorable entrance at “Michigan State Madness” Friday night.
Oct 25, 2014, 7:03 PM EDT
While head coach Gib Arnold released a statement saying that the school had yet to receive a Notice of Allegations from the NCAA, the administration is considering the option of self-imposing sanctions.
Oct 25, 2014, 5:29 PM EDT
Byron Samuels already had a tough rebuilding job in front of him as a result of Florida A&M being hit with a postseason ban for low APR numbers.
Oct 25, 2014, 4:00 PM EDT
Mike Young has seen the Wofford men’s basketball program come a long way since he first joined the coaching staff back in 1989.
Oct 25, 2014, 3:30 PM EDT
A three-star commit on Friday night, a top-70 pledge on Saturday morning. This has been a big weekend for first-year head coach Mike Rhoades.
Oct 25, 2014, 2:00 PM EDT
A story from Syracuse.com says the first-year big man does up to 500 pushups daily.
Oct 25, 2014, 12:50 PM EDT
This is Danny Manning’s third commitment this month, first in the Class of 2016.
Oct 25, 2014, 12:00 PM EDT
Davidson is gone, but that does not mean that the SoCon will be a bad basketball league.
Oct 25, 2014, 11:45 AM EDT
Only three programs remain in contention for the nation’s top rated point guard.
Oct 25, 2014, 11:00 AM EDT
Pretty good dunk, but still not better than Chris Mack’s entrance.
Oct 25, 2014, 10:15 AM EDT
The Hall of Fame coach makes his first comments, several days after Kenneth Wainstein released his report.
Oct 24, 2014, 10:55 PM EDT
Tom Izzo does it again. Add it to the long line of amazing midnight madness entrances.
Oct 24, 2014, 10:24 PM EDT
Chris Mack and his daughters performed ‘Paul Revere’ at Musketeer Madness on Friday night.
Oct 24, 2014, 8:05 PM EDT
The Wisconsin forward is likely to miss a week or two
Oct 24, 2014, 7:30 PM EDT
Ed Cooley adds a 6-foot-8 forward to the Friars’ front court.
Oct 24, 2014, 6:45 PM EDT
The former Virginia Tech Hokie will be a big boost to SMU’s perimeter.
Oct 24, 2014, 6:00 PM EDT
Manhattan and head coach Steve Masiello had some issues to address this spring, but thanks in part to their departed senior class the Jaspers are well-positioned to once again contend in the MAAC.
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