New Mexico Lobos Men’s’ Basketball – 2013-14 Season Preview
Exhibition Opener: 7 p.m., Saturday (Nov. 2) vs. Eastern New Mexico, The Pit
Season Opener: 8 p.m., (Nov. 9) vs. Alabama A&M, The Pit
By Richard Stevens – Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
In looking at the new pieces of Lobo men’s basketball while not ignoring a few holes that need to be plugged, there is one changing of the guard that should be of no concern for Pit fanatics.
The Lobos still have an outstanding coach in front of the New Mexico bench and in Craig Neal’s rookie season on the hot seat at the D-I level – and in The Pit – there is even more comfort for Lobo fans still eying a dream season that takes New Mexico deep into postseason play.
Neal returns Kendall Williams, Alex Kirk, Cameron Bairstow and Hugh Greenwood.
In a word, Neal is “loaded” in his debut season at UNM. Of course, there is pressure that comes with great expectations and great talent, but that’s better than the alternative. The Lobos were almost a unanimous choice to win the 2014 Mountain West title and they will decorate many, many preseason Top 25 polls.
The Lobos are projected to be good and they will be good. Now, Neal has to push them to grasp what dangles beyond the reaching fingertips of talent and potential. He needs his Lobos to achieve and then overachieve. He needs chemistry. He needs to plug a hole left by Tony Snell. He needs to develop a productive bench.
“I’m taking over a program that is ranked in the Top 20 to start the season, so I guess there is added pressure,” said Neal. “But this is a really good team and it’s a fun pressure.”
The season of 2013-14 should be more than fun. The addition of Neal as the keeper of The Pit keys is a wild card with tremendous potential. He could be a Lobo coach as loved as Norm Ellenberger with a similar magnetism created by different means. Ellenberger was the swinger/philosopher who energized The Pit with style, charm, foot-stomping energy and dynamic Lobos.
Neal rode into The Pit on a Harley. His hair is longer than Steve Alford’s and he is cut more from the Everyday-Man mold. He is more Levi’s than Brooks Brothers. He is more Albuquerque, more Lobo than he is Los Angeles and UCLA.
Alford fell out of favor to a number of Pit fans after losing to Harvard, signing a 10-year contract extension and then bolting for UCLA. Neal stayed.
Now, “Noodles” has to win. There is no reason not to expect him to do it and do it in a big way in 2013-14.
It you can shrink the core of UNM’s 2012-13 team into two players, that core is back: Kendall Williams and Alex Kirk. “Tony (Snell) was arguably our third best player last year,” said Neal.
Williams, a 6-4 senior, is an outstanding guard and versatile. He can run the point, lead the break, hit the trey and finish with flash. “He is one of the best guards in the country,” said Greenwood. “Obviously, we are going to rely on him a lot this year and depend on him to lead this team.”
Consider what Neal takes into the 2013-14 season. He has one of the best one-two guard tandems in the nation in Williams and the steady Greenwood. He might have the best one-two Twin Tower stack in D-I ball behind the 7-foot Kirk and the 6-9 Bairstow.
Sure, the hole left by Snell needs to be filled. But with the Lobos’ foursome of starters back and playing at a higher level than they did a season ago, that void is not critical. Neal needs to find someone to hit a few shots, play defense, haul down some rebounds and take care of the ball.
““We don’t have a player who can come out and do what Tony did for us,” said Neal. “ Everyone is asking who is going to replace Tony Snell, but that’s not going to happen. But there isn’t a huge hole to fill. I’m not really worried about that spot.”
However, there is an obvious hole to fill – a vital need that Neal needs to find and develop prior to the Mountain West race. It’s also a need that is vital to postseason play.
Neal needs to find a bench.
“Maybe the biggest thing for us is to get continuity and productivity from the guys coming off the bench,” said Neal. “Nobody has stepped up yet. We have to figure out how the bench is going to play into this and with six guys who haven’t played a division-one game. That makes it interesting.”
The New Mexico bench of 2012-13 was more than helpful in UNM’s run to two Mountain West championships – the Mountain’s regular season and the MW Tournament. The obvious losses are Jamal Fenton and 6-6 Chad Adams. They combined to score only 8.3 points a game, but their roles off the bench were important. They were not wasted minutes.
“It will be tough to replace Jamal with the energy and the enthusiasm that he brought off the bench, but we have guys who can certainly step up and take that role,” said Greenwood.
Neal returns 6-3 Cleveland Thomas, 6-8 Nick Banyard and 6-foot walk-on Chris Perez. Thomas saw the most action last season and played in 33 of 35 games. However, he played only 58 minutes in his last 12 games as the season rolled into crunch time. But it was hard to crack a lineup that included Snell and that fabulous returning four.
But Snell is gone.
“I think Pancake (Thomas) might start in there initially, but to pick any one guy is difficult,” said Greenwood. “We’re definitely looking forward to getting that chemistry figured out.”
Neal agrees: “Pancake will get more of a chance early since he’s been here and understands what we want.”
“I believe that Pancake should get it,” said Cullen Neal of the starting hole left by Snell.
Thomas might be ahead of the pack heading into the season which would give UNM a lineup that goes 6-3 Greenwood, 6-4 Williams, 6-3 Thomas, 6-9 Bairstow and 7-foot Kirk. That leaves a talented bench fighting for playing time.
Neal has a lot of choices off his bench – regardless of which Lobos end up there. He has padded his roster and his depth with 6-6 Arthur Edwards, 7-foot-1 Obij Aget, 6-7 Devon Williams, 6-4 Cullen Neal, 6-7 Merv Lindsay, 6-6 Tim Myles and 6-5 Deshawn Delaney. Lindsay, a redshirt sophomore, came South from Kansas. The other six are D-I rookies.
“It’s a deep bench, but we have six guys who haven’t played a division-one game,” said Neal. “There is a lot of talent there, but the basketball IQ is a learning process.
“We are going to try and play a little bit faster and we’ll push it down the floor. That also gives us more time to run things in the half court and find the shot we want.
“We’re going to press and try to speed up the tempo with defense, but we have been so good on defense the past few years that we aren’t going to change too much. If some of the new guys show they can produce, we might go with nine or ten and press more.”
Kendall Williams and Hugh Greenwood – nice. It doesn’t get much better than this on the collegiate level.
“Hugh is more relaxed and he’s doing more offensively and Kendall is playing better than he ever has,” said Neal.
If UNM goes to a set offense, the Lobos can use Greenwood to bring it down. Or Williams. If the Lobos decide to run, they can use Williams to sprint it down. Or Greenwood.
“We basically go with three guards and, depending on the situation, our point guard is whoever brings the ball up the court,” said Neal. “We have good depth there. We can play a lot of people there.”
For sure, Williams is the preferred mode of transportation in full-speed, run-and-gun transition. He is a jet. He can pull up and hit the trey or he can finish at the rim. “We have maybe the best combo-guard in the nation in Kendall,” said Neal. “He is outstanding at any guard spot.”
In a run-the-offense set, Greenwood will see a lot of duty out front, but Neal says a more confident Greenwood should see the junior more in launch mode in 2013-14. That could even give UNM a high-octane front of freshman Cullen Neal at the point with Williams and Greenwood on the wings.
“We’ll switch it up and Hugh can give us some scoring off the ball,” said Neal.
The loss of Fenton’s energy might not be that big a loss either. Cullen Neal was a high-energy player at Eldorado High and has more potential as an outside scorer than did Fenton. He probably needs time to adjust to the point (and defense) at the D-I level, but he should be a Pit pleaser off the bench.
“I still have to see what I’m going to get out of Pancake (Cleveland Thomas) and Arthur (Edwards),” said Neal. “Until someone steps up, there are a lot of interchangeable pieces over there.”
Neal has choices on the wing/off-guard/shooting-guard spot – lots of choices. That was more or less Snell’s position in 2012-13 where he averaged 12.5 points a game. Snell was UNM’s No. 2 scorer last year and those points need to come from somewhere.
“It might be by committee,” said Neal. “We don’t need that spot to do too much. We have four really good players back and we probably will get more out of those four this year.”
There is a committee of good choices for Neal at the wing, but, it’s always nice when a player or two rise to the forefront. The Lobo wing most likely will have a smaller, quicker, shooter type – Williams, Greenwood, Cullen Neal, Thomas or Edwards) – and a wing with more size.
Nick Banyard is a talented 6-8 wing/forward who can give Neal size and length on the wing, if defensive size or rebounding is an issue. Physically, Banyard would be a solid fill in for the 6-7 Snell. “We have great aspirations for him,” Coach Neal said of Banyard. The 6-7 Devon Williams also has size as does 6-7 Merv Lindsay and 6-6 Tim Myles.
Another promising option for Snell’s spot is the 6-5 Delaney. He is a two-time JC All-American, who averaged 17.1 points and 8.6 boards at Vincennes JC. He shot .544 percent from the field in his two-year JC career. This is a scorer who likes to hit the glass. There is a big upside to Delaney, if he can quickly adjust to D-I ball.
The 6-7 Lindsay sat out a year after transferring from Kansas and should develop quickly with playing time. Edwards, a 6-6 guard/wing started 26 games and made 40 percent of his treys for a Northwest Florida State team that played in its second straight National Junior College Division I championship.
Snell gave UNM an athletic scorer on the wing, but his long, 6-7 frame allowed him to guard small forwards. The Lobos can go small on the wings with shooters, or throw in some size, but not lose any athleticism.
You might recall a season ago the Lobos’ plan was to platoon Kirk and Bairstow. That plan eventually was scraped as Demetrius Walker faded and the Twin Tower combo helped add two MW trophies to the New Mexico showcase.
“Look at the results,” said Greenwood of the Lobos’ Twin Tower combo of last year. Kirk averaged 12.1 points and 8.1 boards. Bairstow went 9.7 and 5.9. The Lobos had two go-to players inside and those players are even better in 2013-14.
Neal plans to go Twin Towers early and often – but not always. He needs to develop some depth inside and the 7-foot-1 Obij Aget needs some court time. Aget graduated from high school in 2012, but sat out the 2012-13 season with a torn ACL and did not enroll in school. He is raw and rusty.
“Alex and Cam are as good as there is in the country,” Neal said of his inside duo. “They are really good. Cam has more freedom to score and he is playing with more confidence and that’s huge. Anyone who had the summer that Cam had is going to come back with a lot of confidence. Alex has improved, too.
“The problem is they can’t play 40 minutes so we need some other guys to play. Obij is seven-one and he gives us someone who takes up a lot of space. He can run, but he’s still raw and he hasn’t played in a year. He should help us.
“I also need to get something inside out of Nick Banyard, Merv Lindsay, Devon Williams and Tim Myles.”’
It’s obvious that the Lobos are better with both Kirk and Bairstow on the court. Neal might have some moments in the pre-conference slate where he can look down the bench and see both Kirk and Bairstow. But in key games and during crunch time he definitely does not want to see both of them.
“They’ll be out there together a lot,” said Neal. “And I prefer that one of those guys is always on the floor. If Obij is on the floor I’ll probably have Cam on the floor.”
The same holds true if Neal is giving Banyard, Lindsay, Williams or Myles some time at the power forward spot. Then Kirk probably will be in the post and not Aget. This depth is especially crucial if foul trouble, illness or injury hits the UNM inside game.
What’s not to like? Great guards. Great inside game. Talented transfers. Talented freshmen. The Lobos should not have any trouble scoring in 2013-14, so the key to March happiness probably comes down to remembering how honest effort on the boards and in playing defense can impact a scoreboard. The other obvious keys are chemistry and developing the bench. There is a lot of talent on this team and these needs to quickly adhere to the “one for all, all for one” creed of winning.
Editor’s Note: Richard Stevens is a former award-winning Sports Columnist and Associate Sports Editor at The Albuquerque Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.