Neal optimistic as Lobo men begin practice

Craig Neal and his New Mexico Lobos men’s basketball team come into Neal’s second season as head coach with several questions. “People are going to have to bring a roster sheet (to the Lobo Howl,)” Neal joked to start his pre-season press conference.

With five new players in the program and star players Alex Kirk, Cam Bairstow and Kendal Williams having move on to the pro ranks, the Lobos are looking at a transition. How bumpy that transition will be will determine whether UNM will again be contending for another Mountain West title.

Neal, who convened the team’s first practice sessions at the Rudy Davlaos Center on Friday afternoon, said he’s excited about the team and their chances. With so many new faces, Neal is taking a sink-or-swim approach with the team.

“I’m going to throw everything at them and see what sticks and go from there,” he said. “So today will be really interesting because I’m going to throw a lot at them offensively.

“Defensively I think we’ve progressed with knowing our principals, even though it’s preseason, so  I think we’ll be fine there. It’s just offensively… we’ll see what happens.”

The key to success for this New Mexico team, which returns senior guard Hugh Greenwood, along with junior guard Arthur Edwards and senior guard DeShawn Delaney  and sophomores Cullen Neal, a guard and post Obij Ajet, will be gelling as a unit.

“Off the floor I think our guys are good chemistry wise, but it’ll be interesting to see what they do chemistry-wise on the floor,” Neal said. “But we have good attitudes, and a good work ethic.”

Neal said the Lobos will be very similar in their offensive and defensive approach as the 2013-14 squad, which finished 27-7 with a MW Tournament championship but a disappointing loss to Stanford in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. But there will be some changes without the inside duo of Kirk and Bairstow, Neal said..

“We won’t have the same scoring punch we had inside with Cam and Alex and the individual creativity of Kendall,” he said. “But we’re hoping some of those guys can improve from the guard position and provide that. But inside were going to have to look for scoring. I don’t think it’ll be what we’ve had in the past few years because those guys were really good.”

Neal said the only player who will redshirt this season is Sandia High product Adam Cumber. Junior college transfers J.J. N’Ganga, and Tim Jacobs will be active as will Jordan Goodman, who underwent knee surgery earlier in the summer and will have to work his way back into playing shape, Neal said.

“He’s progressing nicely,” Neal said of Goodman’s rehabilititaion. “It’s still up in the air why he had the surgery; it wasn’t advised by us. So he’s just taking a little bit longer than expected.”

The sugery, which addressed a calcium build-up in Goodman’s knee, won’t keep the 6-9, 225-pound guard from playing this season, though, Neal said.

“He’ll be ready by  season starts,” Neal said. “He should have been ready a long time ago. But that’s injuries. He’s a good kid. I’ve had no issues with him. But he’s gotta do twice the work as everyone because he’s hurt.”

Goodman will be counted upon to fill some of the blank spaces in the score sheet this year, as will freshmen Sam Logwood and Xavier Adams, two players that Neal said he is very high on.

“Logowood is probably the best defender as a freshman that we’ve every had,” Neal said. “He’s 6-7 and physical. I think (Xavier) will be the same way. I’m really high on X, I think he’s going to have a terrific career here and he’s going to battle for a lot of minutes this year.”
Because of the composition of the team, both Logwood and Adams will get the chance to play immediately, Neal said.

“Those freshman have got to play, that’s why they were recruited,” he said. “They’re going to get a chance right (away.)”

Neal said his Lobos will look to push the tempo this season, even mentioning that the altitude of Albuquerque is not something UNM teams had taken advantage of in his tenure here. As for making up for the loss of scoring in the post, Neal said he felt confident that Aget and N’Ganga would be able to pick up some of the slack.

Neal said his Lobos will look to push the tempo this season...

“I thought Obij did a nice job last year when called upon… I think he’s improved,” Neal said. “And I think J.J. will help. J.J. is a big body, I think hell be able to screen, get some inside angles. The whole thing with those guys is can they stay out of foul trouble. That’s something we’ll have to improve on.”

Greenwood will also be looked on as a key, both as a leader and a scorer.

“We’re really going to rely on Hugh,” Neal said. “I’ve kind of geared everything to play him off the ball. He came over as a combo guard and we changed him to a point guard.

“It’s his senior, year, and I know he wants to have a big year. We’re going to rely on him to do some things he hasn’t done in the past,” Neal said.

Neal also said Delaney has improved and could end up being a scorer, along with Logwood, particularly low on the block.

Neal began Friday in the foyer of The Pit, greeting fans who had arrived early to buy season tickets for the season. He said he plans to do the same on Oct. 20, when tickets are first available to students. The fans are one reason Neal said he feels UNM will be able to build upon it recent successes.

“We’ve got an unbelieveable place, and our fans are great,” Neal said. “We’re on pace to sell as many if not more (season) tickets than last year. Our fans and our fan base of Lobo Nation are very important. That’s one of the reasons we’ve been successful.”

The Lobos take The Pit floor as a team before Lobo Nation at the Lobo Howl, which is scheduled for Friday, Oct. 17. UNM opens the season with an exhibition at The Pit against Western New Mexico at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 1.

Inside The Lobos Top Stories