NCAA countdown: No. 17 New Mexico
by Scott Gleeson, USA TODAY Sports
The first word: Most coaching transitions call for an adjustment period.
Former assistant Craig Neal replaces Steve Alford, who left for the Hollywood glitz, glamour and pressure as UCLA’s head coach.
Neal inherits a loaded New Mexico roster, and doesn’t expect there to be much of a transitional phase considering Alford allowed him to call plays and lead the team in practices and spurts throughout games.
The Lobos should again excel defensively after allowing 60.6 points per game last season, a byproduct of Neal’s schemes. Offense shouldn’t be an issue, either, especially with the return of Mountain West Player of the Year Kendall Williams. New Mexico’s front line, led by 7-footer Alex Kirk, should be the best in the conference and junior college All-American transfer Deshawn Delaney could serve as the perfect replacement for Tony Snell, who left for the NBA.
One thing Neal won’t have to worry about in his first season as head coach: Motivation. There’ll be a bad taste in returners’ mouth following last season’s NCAA tournament loss to Harvard. Mountain West championships are on the laundry list again, but winning tourney games will be Neal’s primary focus.
2012-13 in review: 29-6 overall (13-3, Mountain West champions), lost in second round of the NCAA tournament to Harvard.
Tournament projection: Automatic bid, No. 5 seed.
Coach’s corner: “The transition has been pretty easy. The players know my voice. The most difficult part has come with other parts of the game. How do players react to my leadership, how am I perceived? It’s the same standard and same philosophies. I’m fortunate I’m taking over a pretty good team.” — Neal, who coached with Alford since his days at Iowa.
Star watch: Williams (13.3 ppg, 4.9 apg) is a savvy point guard who could take on an even bigger role with Snell gone. Hugh Greenwood (7.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg) complements Williams in the backcourt nicely. Kirk (12.1 ppg) comes back as the team’s Mountain West’s leading rebounder (8.1 rpg). Cameron Bairstow (9.7 ppg, 5.9 rpg), a 6-9 forward from Australia, is poised to improve again after a breakthrough season last year. Neal’s … [For more on College basketball countdown: No. 17 New Mexico, click here.]