ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) There are no catchy mottos and no inspirational slogans to mark this season for the New Mexico Lobos.
Bereft of three of the top players to have donned a New Mexico uniform, second-year coach Craig Neal is trying to mold a winner from what is largely a collection of newcomers and seldom-used holdovers.
”When you’re going to play five new guys and you have nine new guys in your program, it’s a different deal,” Neal said. ”Last year’s team, I took over a well-oiled machine that we were just trying to keep it going in the right direction.”
It is quite a different deal this season as New Mexico tries to replace guard Kendall Williams, the program’s fifth-leading scorer; power forward Cameron Bairstow, who averaged 20.4 points and 7.4 rebounds; and 6-foot-11 post Alex Kirk, a redshirt junior who left school and signed with Chicago.
”We had a lot of veteran players back,” Neal said of his rookie coaching season. ”We had some really, really good players. I had my whole coaching staff. This year’s team is like I went somewhere that was not very successful, like I went somewhere else. I had to get new players. I had to get a new (assistant) coach. I have a new strength coach.”
New Mexico does have two returning starters in senior guard Hugh Greenwood and swingman Deshawn Delaney. And the coach’s son, guard Cullen Neal, saw significant minutes and is the squad’s leading returning scorer at 7.1.
But the remainder of the team is long on question marks and short on experience.
”We’ve got a lot of guys that can play,” Neal said. ”We don’t know how well they can play but we’ve got a lot guys we can throw out there on the floor.”
Here are things to consider as New Mexico tries to reach the NCAA tournament for the fourth straight season.
WHERE ARE THE SCORERS: With the departure of Williams, Kirk and Bairstow, 49.7 points or 67 percent of the Lobos’ point production is gone. The top three returning New Mexico players together averaged just 18.6 points. Neal and Greenwood, however, have shown the ability to fill up the basket, just not on a consistent basis. And the Lobos’ planned up-tempo offense, which was not possible with Kirk and Bairstow clogging the lane, will play well into Delaney’s athleticism.
MIDDLE MEN: Bairstow and Kirk were such fixtures down low – controlling the boards and altering shots in addition to scoring – that there were few opportunities for players off the bench to get minutes. Obij Aget is the leading contender to man the post. At 7-1 with long arms, Aget possesses the length to alter shots on the interior. It remains to be seen what kind of presence he can present offensively.
Big things, though, are expected from 6-8 third-year sophomore Devon Williams, who has patiently waited for this opportunity.
JUNIOR COLLEGE ALL-AMERICAN: Signed as one of the country’s top JC prospects, 6-9 Jordan Goodman was expected to step in and be an immediate contributor on both ends of the floor. Instead, he’s still trying to rehabilitate a balky left knee on which he had surgery in June to remove calcium deposits. Neal expressed some frustration with Goodman’s work habits in trying to get the knee back into shape.
COACHING CONUNDRUM: In his first season as a head coach, Neal walked into a pretty sweet deal last season when Steve Alford left for UCLA, leaving behind a team that finished 27-7, the most wins by a first-year coach in the program’s history. Now Neal will have to prove that he can successfully coach a group of newcomers unfamiliar with his system.
DEFENSIVE MINDED: New Mexico was one of the country’s better defensive teams last season, holding opponents to 38 percent shooting and converting as many foul shots as opponents attempted. While a challenge, maintaining those levels will go a long way toward helping the Lobos overcome any potential offensive deficiencies that may arise.