The New Mexico Lobos tip off the 2013-14 season with a home game against the Alabama A&M Bulldogs on November 9, 2013, at 8:00 PM (Mountain Time). This is a game the Lobos expect to win. Indeed, the Lobos must win to keep the pollsters' respect. The Lobos are ranked No. 23 in the Associated Press preseason poll and No. 20 in the USA Today/Coaches Poll. Neal admitted to being nervous before walking down the ramp to the 13,000-plus fans for the an exhibition game against Eastern New Mexico University. That was nothing. Saturday night will kick off the Lobos regular season campaign and mark the official christening of the Craig Neal era.
The Bulldogs, coached by Willie Hayes, will surely be looking to spoil Neal's induction. The Bulldogs finished 11-21 last year, but they're no slouch. The Bulldogs return eleven players from last year, including their top three scorers in DeMarquelle Tabb, who averaged 14.0 points per game, Jeremy Crutcher, who averaged 12.0 points per game, and Brandon Ellis at 10.7 points per game. Tabb can rebound too; he just missed averaging a double-double at 9.9 rebounds per game.
The Lobos, who will don camouflage uniforms as a part of Heroes Weekend, also return a lot of talent from last year's 29-6 team, including seniors Kendall Williams and Cameron Bairstow, and juniors Alex Kirk and Hugh Greenwood. The Lobos welcome a baker's dozen of newcomers in Obij Aget, Tim Myles, Cullen Neal, Merv Lindsay, Devon Williams, Deshawn Delaney and Arthur Edwards.
Myles was an early fall signee that got to play some minutes in UNM's Australian Tour. Neal was ranked No. 87 on the 2013 ESPN Hot 100 Recruiting list, Delaney was the 12th ranked JC recruit, and Edwards was 60th for the 2013 season. However, it will sophomore Cleveland ("Pancake") Thomas who will start in place of NBA-bound Tony Snell.
The Lobos can expect a high speed from the Bulldogs who are a nimble and athletic group, although not the tallest. Additionally, the NCAA rules committee has introduced two big changes this season-a crackdown on hand checks and a more rigid interpretation of the block-charge call. These changes were designed to quicken the tempo of college basketballs games, which has seen the lowest scoring games since the 1981-82 season.
This may be a problem for the Lobos who like to play physical, but Neal doesn't seem concerned. "I like our pace. I think we were getting good shots," Neal said of UNM's two exhibition wins in The Pit. UNM had 75 and 77 possessions in those two wins. UNM averaged 63.2 possessions in 2012-13 under Steve Alford, now at UCLA.
In any event, look for Neal to tinker with the lineup and the Lobos to establish their pace and attitude. This is a game the Lobos cannot drop. The Pit and Albuquerque will be watching and cheering expectantly. Show 'em what you got Coach Noodles.