ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Successes on court, in player development help
In a wet, grass parking lot in North Augusta, S.C., two weeks ago, the Noodles Era nearly ended before it began
And the cause of the near demise of the new head coach of New Mexico basketball would have only fed the paranoid suspicions of every Lobo fan that the media really do have it in for the team.
At the Nike Peach Jam basketball tournament July 11, a hotbed of recruiting for major college basketball coaches, ESPN reporter Jeff Goodman barreled across the overflow grass parking lot in his rented Ford F-150 pickup as the rain poured.
“I knew he didn’t see me at first, and when he did, he hit the brakes and started hydroplaning,” Neal recalled. “I didn’t think he was going to be able to stop.”
He did, about two feet short of the side of Neal’s car, the Lobos coach recalls.
Goodman sent a Journal reporter a message on Twitter moments after the near-crash, “I almost just got into a car wreck with Craig Neal parking for Peach Jam. Could have been ugly. Was my fault.”
But Neal didn’t have much time to gather himself.
“A game was about to start,” Neal said. “I parked and (hurried into) the gym. Had work to do.”
That’s been the theme for Neal and his coaching staff in July. Neal, associate head coach Lamont Smith and assistants Drew Adams and Craig Snow have been in almost nonstop movement recruiting around the country.
And with the exception of his near death-by-media moment in South Carolina, things seem to be going very well for the first-time head coach.
All four UNM coaches are in Las Vegas, Nev., this week as the recruiting season reaches its peak. Thousands of players from around the country are competing in numerous tournaments around Sin City through Sunday.
“It seems as if some combination of coaches Neal and Snow have been in every gym that I’ve been in this month,” Frank Burlison, who owns the Burlison on Basketball website and recruiting service for college and NBA coaches, told the Journal in an email. “And, based upon what I know of the very best prospects in the West, they’ve definitely been courtside at the ‘games to be at.’ ”
UNM already secured the first commitment from a highly regarded player for the Class of 2015 when Arizona wing Dane Kuiper said earlier this month he would play for the Lobos.
Among UNM’s most prized prospects is four-star 2014 recruit Zylan Cheatham of Phoenix Westwind Prep. The 6-foot-7 forward, who made an unofficial visit to New Mexico during his junior season, has been offered a scholarship by just about every school in the Pac-12 and many top-level programs across the country. He’s maintained for months that UNM is among his favorites.
Smith, a former assistant at Washington, Arizona State and St. Mary’s, said he’s noticed there aren’t any prospects or AAU coaches who are passing on UNM’s sales pitch.
“I’m not saying we’re going to be landing every Top 10 recruit out there,” Smith said, “but I’m saying there isn’t anyone out there we feel like we’d be wasting our time by making that call. The doors are open at all levels.”
While the program still lacks a deep NCAA Tournament run in its history, recruits are listening because it has also had a recent run of success – not only in wins and losses, but in player development. Tony Snell was selected in the first round of last month’s NBA draft by the Chicago Bulls, and four current Lobos (Alex Kirk and Kendall Williams for the U.S., Cam Bairstow and Hugh Greenwood in Australia) have either been invited to try out or have already played for their home countries in international competition.
“I think those are very important, because it says a lot about the program,” Shannon Kuiper said about her son Dane’s attraction to UNM basketball. “It shows that if you work hard, there’s a system in place with a building tradition of getting players to the next level – developing players to their fullest extent.”
Josh Gershon, recruiting analyst for Fox Sports and Scout.com, agreed the Snell factor can only help UNM.
“He wasn’t a Top 100 prospect that everyone expected to be drafted,” Gershon said of Snell. “He was more of an unknown guy nationally that New Mexico had to develop. Being that Snell was from Southern California, and kids out here saw his development from under the radar to first-round draft pick while in a Lobos jersey can only help the New Mexico coaches in recruiting.”
Gershon also said it doesn’t hurt when recruits see the head coach himself at so many events.
“One thing that has been really noticeable about Craig Neal is that he’s a very hard-working recruiter for a head coach,” Gershon said. “He’s been as visible as any head coach in the region over the first couple of July evaluation periods, and that’s a big selling point in recruiting. High school players want to know that the head coaches of the schools recruiting them think they’re a priority. And the only way to prove that is when they’re at many of the recruit’s games.”