New Mexico Lobos Men’s Basketball -- 2013-14 Season Review
By Richard Stevens – Senior Writer/GoLobos.com.
You are tempted to start a review of New Mexico’s 27-win season by saying “the rookie did good,” but to call the Lobos’ first-year coach, Craig Neal, a rookie is a bit misleading. “I wasn’t a new guy coming in,” said Neal.
Neal’s history with hard court Xs and Os dates back to childhood, high school, college and the NBA. His six-year history with New Mexico made his 18-inch slide into The Pit’s hot seat a seemingly seamless transition. Still, Neal was humble enough to know there was a change in responsibilities – and temperature.
“It’s a lot different walking down that ramp when you are the guy in charge of the program,” said Neal. “I spent a lot of time reaching out to people trying to get better. I don’t think that I know all the answers.”
Neal knew enough answers in 2013-14 to help push the Lobos to a season of 27 wins. He knew enough to lead the Lobos to their most Mountain West regular-season wins ever (15) and add another Mountain West championship ring to New Mexico’s gaudy string of championship bling.
“I thought we had a really, really good season,” said Neal. “We won 27 games and a tournament championship and three in a row has never been done before in our conference. I’m really proud of what our kids did.”
It was a season that saw Neal’s Lobos claim the program’s third consecutive Mountain West Tournament Championship, power into the NCAA bracket with 27 wins, and battle an exceptional San Diego State team to the final gun for the MW’s regular-season crown.
“I thought 14-4 would win the regular-season (championship) and it didn’t,” said Neal, semi tongue-in-cheek as his Lobos won 15 games, but SDSU went 16-2. “It didn’t happen, but we were right there.”
The Lobos run toward the Mountain’s automatic NCAA bid was set up by a severe pre-MW testing ground including contests with UAB, Davidson, UMass, Marquette, Kansas, Cincinnati, San Diego and New Mexico State. “It was probably the hardest strength of schedule we’ve had in a while,” said Neal.
Sure, the pre-MW schedule was tough, but it also developed a New Mexico team that won seven Mountain West road games and also developed some ornery Lobos. It was a season that saw UNM’s “Big Three” of Cameron Bairstow, Alex Kirk and Kendall Williams earn spots on the All-Mountain West Team with Bairstow and Williams placed on the MW’s First Team.
Williams leaves UNM as one of the more decorated Lobos ever. He is only the second Lobo to ever score 400 points or more in all four seasons. He also leaves UNM as the Mountain West’s career leader in assists.
It was a season that Bairstow made a huge push in his confidence, his game and his scoring to become the most feared forward/post in the conference. Bairstow appeared headed toward Mountain West Player of the Year honors, but was bumped by SDSU’s Xavier Thames at the wire.
The 6-foot-9 Lobo – the league’s top scorer with a 20.4 average -- later got a taste of sweet revenge by claiming the MW tourney MVP award that went to the best player on the best team during the league’s chase for the NCAA automatic bid in Las Vegas’ Thomas & Mack Center. Bairstow also is the only Lobo in program history to go from single-digit scoring to double-digit scorings in back-to-back seasons.
“We develop players,” said Neal of the Lobo program.
You can’t say that the Lobos’ success on the court was a surprise in 2013-14 as New Mexico returned four starters from the 2013 MW championship team (also Hugh Greenwood), was the preseason pick to win the 2014 MW title, and was a preseason Top 25 selection.
But Neal still had his challenges. He had to fill in the hole left by Tony Snell’s jump into the NBA and he had to develop a productive bench from a handful of youth. He also had to develop chemistry, hunger and a passion for defense because the Lobos were heading into the dog-eat-dog Mountain West with a target on their backs.
Neal’s Lobos needed to be good and they needed to be focused. And they were – 27 times. There were a few hiccups along the way but nothing too drastic and nothing that kept Neal from achieving his personal No. 1 goal of the season: an NCAA berth.
“My main concern since I got the job was to get them back to the (NCAA) tournament,” said Neal. “I was able to do that.”
The Lobos’ run to the 2014 MW Tournament crown went through Fresno State, Boise State and San Diego State. The 64-58 win over SDSU gave UNM a 2-1 mark over an exceptional Aztecs’ team that went 31-5 with two losses to Arizona. “I thought our guys played exciting basketball and I thought our team was fun to watch,” said Neal.
The season’s end was not fun for the Lobos. New Mexico, for the second straight year, was knocked out of the NCAA bracket in the first round – this time 58-53 by the Stanford Cardinal of the Pac-12. It was a tough loss for New Mexico which had leaned heavily on Bairstow, Kirk and Williams for scoring punch during the 2013-14 season.
Bairstow was dynamic in the loss to Stanford leading all scorers with 24 points in his unrelenting attack on the heart of the Stanford defense. But Williams and Kirk had off nights. Williams went 1-of-9 from the field and finished with three points. Kirk went 0-of-2 from the floor and finished with three points. That duo had brought a combined 30-point average into the NCAA bracket.
The Lobos played hard and the defense that Neal massaged to a high level throughout the season held the Cardinal to 39 percent shooting. But the Lobos’ offense could not compensate for off nights by its two seniors. “One thing we didn’t accomplish was advancing,” said Neal.
Obviously, NCAA success is important to a program with UNM’s goals. But the season of 2013-14 had dramatic success in the pre-conference, conference and MW tournament stages. The team also showed the road toughness that has been a recent trademark of this program. Neal’s Lobos tied a program record with 14 wins away from the warmth of The Pit.
Neal, whose 27 wins is the most ever by a first-year Lobo coach, was named as a finalist for two national coaching awards and was given a two-year extension by UNM. The 27 wins tied Neal for the 12th spot in NCAA history for wins by a first-year Division I coach. The Lobos also are one of two Division I programs that have won three consecutive conference tournaments.
It’s almost inevitable that teams and programs end the season in losses on and off the court. Neal took over the keys to The Pit last year after Steve Alford bolted for UCLA. UNM also lost Tony Snell at the close of the 2013 season. Neal said 6-6 Tim Myles and 6-8 Nick Banyard have been granted their releases from the Lobo program. UNM also loses Williams, Bairstow and Chris Perez, who have reached the end of their collegiate eligibility.
Neal said any talk of him looking at other programs was simple talk. “I want to be here. I love it here,” he said. “It’s a special place for me. I had fun this season. It was a blast.”