New Mexico Lobos
Record: Record: 27 – 6
Conference: Mountain West Conference
How They Qualified: Conference Champs
After a disappointing end in last year’s tournament that saw No. 3 seed New Mexico ousted in the first round by No. 14 seed Harvard, first year head coach Craig Neal was given the keys to the program, following Steve Alford’s departure to UCLA. Taking over a team with 4 returning starters including the reigning Mountain West player of the year, Kendall Williams, Neal’s Lobos have met the challenge head on. Finishing with 27 wins and a conference championship, they’ll look to exercise a few demons with a long tournament run.
What You Need to Know
Leading Scorer: Cameron Bairstow
Leading Rebounder: Alex Kirk
Leading Passer: Kendall Williams
Bad Losses: Kansas, San Diego State
Good Wins: Cincinnati, New Mexico State, San Diego State
What to Expect
The talent and leadership is there; this Lobos team features four returning starters including Kendall Williams and Cameron Bairstow. They have no issues scoring, as they lead the Mountain West in points per game and assists, and hold opposing teams to just under 64 points per game. They crash the boards and are sound defensively.
In all actuality, most of the Lobos’ concerns fall on the shoulders of their new head coach. Neal’s early successes aside, he has come under some scrutiny of late, following the Lobos’ tough 51-48 loss to San Diego State in the Mountain West title game. New Mexico appeared to be in complete control with a 16 point lead and just under 12 minutes to play before the Aztecs went into a 1-3-1 zone that stumped the Lobos and eventually turned the tide.
The Lobos avenged themselves however by downing San Diego State in the Mountain West Conference championship to a score of 64-58, but the bar only rises from here on out.
There’s no doubt that Neal has the chops to take the New Mexico program to great heights. After six years as Alford’s right hand man there was little to any question as to who deserved next, and athletic director Paul Krebs obviously shared that sentiment by locking Neal down with a 5-year contract. But another first round out would be a terribly bittersweet ending to what has been an exciting season for the New Mexico Lobos.
The pressure is on.