Oct 30, 2013, 2:00 PM EST
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.
Dec 18, 2014, 10:45 PM EST
Also of note was Ole Miss avoiding what would have been their fourth home loss of the season.
Dec 18, 2014, 8:44 PM EST
Jabari McGhee suffered the injury in Tennessee’s loss to NC State on Wednesday.
Dec 18, 2014, 7:09 PM EST
Branden Dawson is the team’s leading rebounder, as he’s grabbing 8.7 boards per contest.
Dec 18, 2014, 5:59 PM EST
Gaston Diedhiou was denied admission to Minnesota during the summer, and he is now eligible immediately after passing an English proficiency exam.
Dec 18, 2014, 5:08 PM EST
While the focus has been on the Aztecs’ shooting percentages, their ability to find quality looks has been a big reason why they’ve struggled.
Dec 18, 2014, 3:45 PM EST
When do we start counting Duke-UConn as a rivalry?
Dec 18, 2014, 3:33 PM EST
Agau was buried on the Louisville bench with a number of young guys in front of him.
Dec 18, 2014, 2:34 PM EST
A deep look into the early-season struggles of Marcus Paige and whether or not they are fixable.
Dec 18, 2014, 12:48 PM EST
The last two times these teams have squared off in big games, the outcome has been memorable.
Dec 18, 2014, 10:53 AM EST
Three-point shooting might be the key to the Virginia season.
Dec 18, 2014, 9:59 AM EST
She may not be playing anymore, but Lauren’s time with the basketball program has not yet come to an end.
Dec 18, 2014, 8:45 AM EST
David Nwaba scored 11 second-half points to help lead the Mustangs back from a 14-points halftime deficit. Here are two of those points.
Dec 18, 2014, 8:00 AM EST
Doolin finished the game with 15 points, three assists and no turnovers, and made two huge plays to get UNLV the two-point win over Portland.
Dec 18, 2014, 12:04 AM EST
This is the first win that the American has landed over a ranked team.
Dec 18, 2014, 12:00 AM EST
Dawson’s injury occurred on the same night that freshman Javon Bess made his regular season debut for the Spartans.
Dec 17, 2014, 10:33 PM EST
Copes played in just four games this season due to injury.
Dec 17, 2014, 10:07 PM EST
The best part is that it was very much intentional
Dec 17, 2014, 9:20 PM EST
Delaware State’s Amere May scored more points than anyone in college basketball has this season.
Dec 17, 2014, 8:19 PM EST
With Lavon Long and Brett Bisping now sidelined, the Saints are without their two best rebounders.
Dec 17, 2014, 6:55 PM EST
Defense and turnovers will be the keys for Texas when Big 12 play begins.
- Michigan State starting forward to miss next two games with non-displaced wrist fracture 0
- Film Session: What’s plaguing Marcus Paige? 1
- Throwback Thursday: UConn ‘Shocks The World’ against Duke (VIDEO) 1
- New Year’s Resolutions: Virginia Cavaliers 1
- Chase for 180: So far, so good for Virginia’s Justin Anderson 0
- New Year’s Resolutions: Kansas Jayhawks 1
- Wichita State’s offensive struggles highlighted by come-from-behind win vs. Alabama 2
- Gregg Marshall writes to Wichita State students after seeing empty seats in student section (PHOTO) (7)
- Report: David Robinson’s son will be preferred walk-on at Duke in 2015-16 (VIDEO) (6)
- West Virginia’s Bob Huggins torches Marshall after coach calls Huggs ‘afraid’ (5)
- Without Alex Poythress, No. 1 Kentucky’s offense looks comfortable in win over No. 21 North Carolina (4)
- Lauren Hill’s playing career over, to become honorary coach (4)