This preview and more on New Mexico and the Mountain West are available in the Athlon Sports 2013-14 College Basketball Preseason Annual. The magazine is available online or on newsstands everywhere.
No. 14 New Mexico Facts & Figures
Last season: 29-6 (13-3 Mountain West)
Postseason: NCAA Round of 64
Coach: Craig Neal (first season)
Mountain West projection: First
Postseason projection: NCAA Sweet 16
Steve Alford’s swan song at New Mexico will be remembered for his reluctance to eat crow after a dispiriting Round of 64 loss in the NCAA Tournament to Harvard when a charged-up fan base expected the Lobos to cobble together a history-making run at the Sweet 16.
The once-beloved boy wonder blamed everybody else for his team’s meltdown and then authored a stirring escape and landed one of the top jobs in college basketball. Alford bailed for UCLA 10 days after signing a 10-year extension with New Mexico, which included a hefty buyout. He was replaced by longtime assistant Craig Neal, who turned down an opportunity to join his friend in Los Angeles’ shark tank to swim around in Albuquerque’s fishbowl.
The man affectionately nicknamed “Noodles” for his wiry build as a player at Georgia Tech will try to cross off benchmarks left unchecked by his predecessor.
A breathless fan base — which watched the Lobos win the Mountain West Conference regular-season and tournament titles, crack the top 10, get a No. 3 seed and fizzle against a double-digit seed for the second time in six years — wants desperately to believe what Neal told reporters at his introductory news conference: “Steve set the bar really high, and I’m going to jump over it.”
With four of five starters returning from a 29–6 squad, and emboldened by a groundswell of support for its new head coach, New Mexico could finally break through, provided it shores up its offensive deficiencies.
The early-season emergence of starting forward Cameron Bairstow and center Alex Kirk forced the Lobos to switch from a four-guard lineup to the more traditional three-guard set.
Kirk, once the biggest question mark because of offseason back surgery two years ago, is now, arguably, the Lobos’ most indispensable player, a point hammered home when the second-team All-MWC big man admitted he was grappling with graduating early and following Alford to UCLA because he wouldn’t have to sit out a year. Kirk averaged 12.1 points and a team-high 8.1 rebounds in 2012-13, and has a feathery outside touch. He also had 63 blocks, a big reason he became only the second Lobo to make the MWC All-defensive team. The 6-9 Bairstow played surprisingly well last season but won’t fly under any team’s radar this year.
Both Kirk and Bairstow should be confident heading into the 2013-14 season after they played for their respective countries in the World University Games.
Neal will finally have Obij Aget, a 7-foot center originally from Sudan who was a part of the Lobos’ 2012 signing class but never enrolled at New Mexico after tearing his ACL.
Shooting guard Kendall Williams — at times a sturdy pillar, other times a shrinking violet — is the reigning MWC Player of the Year after averaging a team-high 13.3 points, highlighted by a 46-point explosion against Colorado State in which he made a MWC record 10 3-pointers.
New Mexico will rely on Williams more than ever in the absence of 3-point marksman Tony Snell, who left for the NBA after his junior season. Deshawn Delaney, a transfer from Vincennes (Ind.) University, is expected to fill Snell’s spot. Kansas transfer Merv Lindsay gives the Lobos another option on the wing.
Guard Arthur Edwards started 26 games and made 40 percent of his 3-pointers for a Northwest Florida State team that played in its second straight National Junior College Division I championship.
Gone is Alford’s sharpshooting son, Bryce, who followed his dad to UCLA, but in his place is perhaps a more dynamic newcomer, Cullen Neal. The true freshman could see minutes this year after getting out of his Letter-of-Intent with Saint Mary’s to join forces with father, Craig.
At the helm of it all is heady point guard Hugh Greenwood, the only returning player to start every game last season. The Aussie averaged five rebounds per game and led the team in boards eight times.
Guards Deshawn Delaney and Arthur Edwards will give New Mexico a much-needed perimeter presence. Local product Cullen Neal is a high-energy player, known for riling up opposing fans. Tim Myles played for the same AAU team that produced ex-Lobo Tony Danridge and current Lobo Kendall Williams. Obij Aget was originally a part of New Mexico’s 2012 recruiting class. Merv Lindsay redshirted in 2012-13 after transferring from Kansas.
Factoid: 9. New Mexico won nine games in league play in 2012-13 in which it failed to shoot better than 40 percent from the field. The Lobos compensated by holding opponents to 39 percent shooting, the second-best defensive number in program history.
Look for the Lobos to transition from being a squad that grinds out low-scoring bloodbaths into a more wide-open, offensively potent ball club under Neal. If Williams can play with more consistency, not only will New Mexico battle for top shelf in the Mountain West, but it also might, for once, be around for the latter stages of March.
*photo courtesy of Karsen King Welch/UNM
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