Team Preview: 2014 New Mexico Lobos
By: Tory Davis
Coach: Craig Neal 0-0 at New Mexico (0-0 overall)
2012-13 Finish: 29-6 (13-3 in the MWC)
In the beginning of March 2013, all seemed well in the Lobos men’s basketball program. The team was fresh off a Mountain West tournament title and was playing some of their best basketball of the year. Steve Alford’s blueprint for the program seemed to be coming to fruition, and UNM earned a three seed for the NCAA tournament. UNM brass prepared to offer Alford a 10-year contract extension.
Then things took a definite downturn. The 2013 tourney appearance was a disaster as the Lobos fell in the first round to 14-seeded Harvard. Alford bolted for greener pastures at UCLA, walking away from the 10-year extension that he signed with New Mexico. Hope remains in Albuquerque, however. The Lobos responded to the loss of Alford by awarding the head coaching gig to associate coach and longtime Alford disciple Craig Neal. Neal provides much-needed consistency in what was a tumultuous year for the program. He is also the beneficiary of a largely unchanged roster that returns 2013 standouts in senior guard Kendall Williams and center Alex Kirk.
Strongside: Williams was the Lobos’ top scorer last year; his points per game have steadily increased over his three-year career at UNM. A reliable shooter and consistent distributor, Williams will be the conduit through which the Lobos’ offense runs.
The Lobos are also buoyed by the continued presence of Kirk; the big New Mexican, who returns for his junior season, is a massive force in the paint. An excellent rebounder and a consistent scorer, Kirk is also a daunting defender who averaged nearly two blocks per game in 2013. Joining Kirk in the Lobos’ frontcourt is rangy senior Cameron Bairstow, another experienced player who can be relied upon for secondary scoring.
Weakside: While having experienced bigs is often a recipe for success in the college game, the Lobos’ main weaknesses will still be serious: scoring and defense. Having lost Tony Snell—the team’s best defender in 2012—to the NBA, the Lobos will be more reliant on Williams, Kirk and junior guard Hugh Greenwood to keep things tight on defense. Greenwood is a hardworking player and an honest defender, but he’s a poor shooter and will mainly look to move the ball on offense.
And that will be a consistent issue for the Lobos: who can be looked upon to score when things get dicey? Williams, Kirk and Bairstow are the only established scorers on the team, and with Greenwood supplying heart and hustle but no jimmy, the Lobos will need to find more scoring somewhere. It could come from freshman guard Cullen Neal (the coach’s boy), but if not, the Lobos will have to look to sophomore guard Cleveland Thomas to be productive as the sixth man.
Furthermore, Kirk has had trouble with injuries in the past. If his creaky back causes him to miss significant time, the Lobos will be in big trouble.
All Told: Working in the Lobos’ favor is the depleted talent level in the MWC this season. UNLV, San Diego State and Colorado State—all contenders last season—have lost many key starters to transfers, graduation and the Association. What remains is a very winnable conference that the veteran Lobos team should have little trouble tearing up. Problems will arise when the competition level gets higher; while the Lobos should make the Big Dance, they likely will not have the firepower for a deep run.
Tory Davis is Playboy Bracket Challenge’s version of Homer: a sportswriter who supplies both long-winded odysseys and consciously epic analysis. He has a distinct west coast bias and believes that western teams are constantly underrated (even though last year’s tourney brought underwhelming results for almost all west coast teams). When not yelling at sports on his TV, he is a passionate beer drinker and arrogant debater. He can be celebrated on Twitter @ToryADavis10.