Basketball practice is underway for the New Mexico Lobos so now is as good a time as any to preview their season.
Key Losses: Hugh Greenwood (G), Deshawn Delaney (G/F)
Key Additions: Freshmen Nikola Scekic (C), Jordan Hunter (G), Anthony Mathis (G), Dane Kuiper (G/F) and incoming transfers Tim Williams (F) and Elijah Brown (G)
Prior to last year, the University of New Mexico was a dominant contender in the Mountain West. Guys like Drew Gordon, Tony Snell, Kendall Williams, Cameron Bairstow, and Alex Kirk terrorized the conference. However, those players are gone and with the recent graduations of Hugh Greenwood and Deshawn Delaney at the conclusion of a forgettable 2014-15 season, an era of New Mexico basketball has closed on a sour note. Indeed, the University of New Mexico is coming off one of its worse seasons in recent years, finishing in eighth place in the Mountain West Conference with a 7-11 conference record.
They had some strong wins, including a dominating 66-53 upset of then #24-ranked Colorado State on January 3rd, and terrible losses, including falling to Grand Canyon University (65-68) on December 23rd, 2014. They went 15-16 overall and lost in the first round of the conference tournament to Air Force. This upcoming season will focus on building towards the future. Patience and optimism will be necessary for Lobo nation.
Defense – In recent years, UNM has become known for its smothering defense. Countless times they have stifled opponents with their zone schemes. Last season’s stats seem to support this claim: the Lobos were 31st in the nation at points allowed at 60.2 ppg. They were 55th in the nation at blocks per game (4.2). The Lobos should be able to continue with this success. One of their best assets is their size and length. Between N’Ganga, Aget, and incoming freshman Nikola Scekic, the Lobos have three legit centers on the roster this year.
The "smallest" of the three is N’Ganga at 6’10. He and Aget have manned the middle quite well in UNM’s 2-3 zone defenses, demonstrating good positioning and the ability to block shots. I am also particularly interested in the Serbian Scekic, who at 7’1’’ and 255 lbs, is a man amongst boys. Here’s hoping that he finds his way on the court this year. New Mexico also features a lot of length on the wings.
Dane Kuiper, a 6’7’’ guard, was rated the top high school prospect in Arizona and ought to see court action this year. He will most likely spell Sam Logwood, another 6’7’’ guard/forward who came on at the end of last season. Also don’t discount Elijah Brown, a transfer from Butler. At 6’4’’ and 200 lbs, he will look to build upon a solid freshman campaign. Finally, Cullen Neal at 6’5’’ will man the shooting guard position. With Aget and N’Ganga anchoring the backline of the defense, these four wings will be able to take advantage of their length and quickness to get in the passing lanes and cause turnovers that lead to easy baskets.
Depth and Enticing Young Talent – The Lobos, who struggled with injuries last season, feature a balanced roster this year that will permit the coaching staff to prey upon matchups. With three centers, six players capable of playing forward, and seven guards on the current roster, the Lobos will ride the hot hand and use mismatches to their benefit. Newcomers like the aforementioned Brown, Scekic, and Kuiper, and freshmen guards Jordan Hunter and Anthony Mathis will have fans salivating about the future. 6’8’’ sophomore forward Joe Furstinger had a few flash-in-the-pan type performances last year, including a career-high eight rebounds in that loss to Grand Canyon. As is the case with most programs, these underclassmen will be inconsistent, but will have the opportunities to be difference makers in significant games going forward.
Coaching – Although some people were calling for Coach Neal’s ousting last season, none of them were his players (to my knowledge). Neal’s suffocating defensive schemes are still in place and he is by all accounts an excellent teacher. That will be relevant this season since the Lobos are a young team this year with only three seniors and three juniors. They will have growing pains, but it will be fun to watch them grow together.
Lack of Leadership – For all his limitations, Hugh Greenwood was a born leader: he played through injury; he seemed to play every position on the court as needed; he was willing to take the big shot; and perhaps most importantly, he was a calming presence on the court in the most intense of moments. Who will fill this void for the Lobos? Coach Neal will probably look to his son Cullen, but reports suggest that he has been a polarizing player who expects teammates to move further down the bench so he can sit next to his father.
Inexperience – In two years, the Lobos will be serious contenders for the Mountain West championship. This season, however, they’ll struggle to win close games. They have six new players (Brown, Mathis, Hunter, Kuiper, Williams, and Scekic) suiting up for the first time and two that barely played last season due to injury or red-shirt (Neal and Adam Cumber). Granted, some of these athletes will redshirt this coming season, but that’s half of the team. It is likely that they will need some time to jell together and learn how to win. Chemistry aside, returning from injury and incoming freshmen often lead to question marks. How will these men handle DI talent on a nightly basis? The rigors and freedoms of college life? Is Neal’s ankle reliable? UNM’s basketball team, largely because of inexperience, is something of an unknown.
Offense – UNM’s defense is great, but their offense in years past exemplified futility. Last year they were 301st in points per game at 62.0. They shot 43% on all field goals, good for 197th and put up a paltry 31% from three and 66% from the free throw line. This year they should be markedly better. The offense will largely hinge on how consistent of a threat Neal can be. He returns after missing most of last season with an ankle injury. For the Lobos to have success this season, Neal will have to return to pre-injury form when he was the Lobos leading scorer.
The caveat is that he only played three games last season, but in that brief time he averaged 17 ppg with 50% shooting from three. I expect the three point percentage to drop with more games and attempts, but if he can shoot it somewhere around his career average of 38%, he and Brown, another pure shooter, will open up the inside for guard penetration and for UNM’s big men to operate down low. If Brown and Neal can bring out the best in each other, then watch out. For now though I’m going to be cautious and take the wait and see approach. Therefore, I have it listed as a weakness.
Final Thoughts - UNM most likely won’t challenge for the top of the conference, but they won’t be an easy victory for opposing teams either. I expect them to finish the season somewhere in the middle of the conference. With a healthy year from Neal and the welcomed addition of Brown, these young upstarts will improve upon last season’s win total while playing spoiler to a few of their conference rivals. A Cinderella run in the conference tournament is a possibility due to their size and length coupled with UNM’s lockdown zone defense.
Next year is the year that New Mexico should be a contender and make some noise.