ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Expectations are understandably running very high for No. 23 New Mexico.
With four starters back from a squad that finished 29-6 and earned a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament, the Lobos are the preseason favorites to win their third straight Mountain West title.
But there were a couple of big changes for New Mexico this season, notably at the helm, where Craig Neal took over as head coach.
"There's a lot more pressure," Neal said of the biggest difference for him after six years as the top assistant under Steve Alford, who left for UCLA.
The Lobos are coming off a disappointing loss to Harvard in the first game of the tournament and have taken up the mantra of "unfinished business." New Mexico has never won more than one game at the tournament.
But Neal will have plenty to work with this season, notably reigning and pre-season conference player of the year Kendall Williams, as well as point guard Hugh Greenwood. Fellow starters and frontcourt mates Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow proved to be the premier power tandem in the conference and both benefited from a summer of international play.
Replacing wing Tony Snell, who left early and was drafted in the NBA's first round by Chicago, will be a chore, but Neal has a number of candidates for the slot with Kansas transfer Merv Lindsay slated to get the first shot at starting.
Freshman Tim Myles and red shirt freshman Devon Williams also are expected to vie for minutes in a swing position that can be either a small forward or a third guard.
Junior college transfer guards Arthur Edwards and Deshawn Delaney, along with returnee Cleveland Thomas, are expected to pick up back court time.
One of the key issues Neal faces is a lack of experience beyond the starters.
"We've got six guys that haven't played a Division I game so physically and athletically, we're very deep," Neal said. "But playing wise and in basketball IQ, it's a learning process for those guys."
Here are five things to watch for with the Lobos this season:
DEPTH: Neal doesn't plan to red shirt any of his newcomers this season, meaning playing time will be at a premium. The squad will be skilled and versatile. Getting the newcomers up to speed will be a priority in the nonconference games. "We could be really deep or not so deep and get better as the year goes on," Neal said. "It's a situation where we're trying to build depth to make that conference run."
HEAD COACH: Neal has the pedigree to take over as head coach, serving under Alford for a total of nine years at New Mexico and Iowa. Those teams averaged 24 wins a season and reached the postseason eight times. A top-notch recruiter who was instrumental in building the Lobos' roster, Neal also has been lauded for his hands-on coaching, particularly on offensive sets. Before joining Alford, Neal was an NBA assistant, learning the trade from Lenny Wilkins at Toronto. Neal played professionally for eight seasons in the NBA, CBA and in Europe.
POWER FRONT COURT: The 7-foot Kirk and the 6-9 Bairstow dominated opponents throughout the conference run when they shared the court as starters. Combined, they averaged nearly 15 rebounds and 23.5 points on a team that was perimeter oriented. Look for the Lobos to feed it inside more as the duo should have a little more help with 6-8 forward Nick Banyard benefiting from a year of experience and 7-1 freshman Obij Aget adding significant size. "They feed off of each other," Greenwood said of Kirk and Bairstow. "They're only going to make each other better."
VERSATILE BACKCOURT: The offense will still run off Kendall Williams, who led the team in scoring with 13.3 points while averaging 4.9 assists. As a senior, he is the acknowledged team leader and has the ability to take over a game when necessary. A case in point being the 46 points he put up in a win at Colorado State last season while hitting 10 of 13 3-pointers. However, he is capable of making his teammates better and looks for the open man when drawing double teams.
SCHEDULE: The Lobos have an exacting early schedule with a home game against Cincinnati, at Kansas and Marquette in Las Vegas, as well as Alabama-Birmingham, Nebraska or UMass and possibly Clemson or Georgia, not to mention a conference slate in the rapidly improving Mountain West with the likes of San Diego State and UNLV.
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