Neal down with his experienced Lobos
The cupboard is hardly bare as coach Craig Neal enters his fourth season as New Mexico’s head coach.
Neal, whose Lobos were 17-15 a year ago, returns four starters and nine lettermen. Hard to believe New Mexico, which got three first-place votes from the media, was picked third behind San Diego State and Nevada.
“We have some good experience coming back,” Neal said. “We have another year of playing together. We have some good experience. We talked last year about taking the next step, and I think we’re ready to do that.
“I like where we’re at. We are in a good place. I like our athleticism.”
Like most good teams, there are expectations. Neal’s team won the MW post-season tournament in 2014 when he posted 27 wins. After the 2014 season, he signed an extension which takes him through 2020. He’s 59-38 in his UNM career.
The best place to start with the Lobos is with 6-4 redshirt junior Elijah Brown, who was named the MW Preseason Player of the Year after averaging 21.7 a contest, and 6-8 power forward Tim Williams. Both were named to the Preseason all-MW team.
Brown is the top returning scorer in the MW. He shot 39.4 from beyond the arc. He also averaged 5.5 rebounds and more than three assists a contest. Brown is the son of current Golden State assistant, Mike Brown.
The younger Brown, who briefly tested the NBA waters in the off-season like Nevada’s Cam Oliver, won’t play in either of the Lobos’ exhibition games because of a hamstring injury. Brown, after transferring from Butler, is in his second season with the Lobos.
“I feel I can shoot the ball; score the ball,” Brown said at the recent MW Media Day in Las Vegas. “I have more confidence in myself.”
And then throw in 6-foot-8 240-pound Williams, who averaged 16.8 and 7.4, respectively. Williams is a beast underneath, shooting 60 percent from the field.
“Tim is a really good player,” Neal said of his power forward. “I think he is going to have a big year for us. He’s gotten better, and he can really score inside.”
The biggest loss for the Lobos was the departure of Neal’s son, Cullen, to Ole Miss. The younger Neal, who was the third-leading scorer, has two season of eligibility left.
Sophomore Jordan Hunter is battling freshman Jalen Harris for the starting spot. Hunter made one start last year, averaging nine minutes a contest. Harris was a top-15 recruit out of North Carolina.
“It was a bad dynamic (for Cullen),” the elder Neal said. “As a dad, I want him to be happy.”
Neal isn’t expecting Hunter or Harris to be a big scorer. He just needs them to run the offense and understand their role.
The other two starters returning are 6-7 Sam Longwood, who’s starting for the third straight season. He averaged 6.3 points and 4.1 rebounds per contest. In the middle is 7-1 220-pound Obij Aget, who averaged 6.6 and 5.7, respectively.
“Sam is capable of having a great year for us,” Neal said on UNM’s web site. “He showed flashes in the tournament last year. He needs to pick it up offensively.”
The other top returners are Dane Kuiper (1.5, 1.0), Xavier Adams (4.6, 2.6), Joe Furstinger (1.6, 1.9), and Anthony Mathis (2.3, 0.5). Besides Harris, true freshman Damien Jefferson, who led East Chicago Central to a section title last year, and 6-9 Connor McDougall, who helped South Mountain-Arizona to an eighth-place finish in the national JC tournament last year, appear to be the top newcomers.