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UNM basketball: Lobo Howl part of national stage

Young Rebecca Espat, center, howls during UNM’s Lobo Howl in the Pit in 2011. ESPNU will televise part of this year’s event.  (Pat Vasquez-Cunningham/Journal)
Young Rebecca Espat, center, howls during UNM’s Lobo Howl in the Pit in 2011. ESPNU will televise part of this year’s event. (Pat Vasquez-Cunningham/Journal)
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Craig Neal is a little worried about tonight’s Lobo Howl.

No, he isn’t worried about how his University of New Mexico team will perform in the glorified annual practice open to the public that for the first time is part of a nine-team, four-hour national broadcast on ESPNU.

He doesn’t really care who wins the 3-point and slam dunk contests his team will perform.

And he isn’t worried about fan turnout, though he has put on a full court press the past week promoting the event and asking fans to show up.

He’s a little worried about himself.

“My biggest concern is I’m going to be mic’d up and there’s going to be some of the guys who do some things out of character and I just have to sort of bite my tongue and deal with it the next day,” Neal said Thursday.

While having the dump button ready for in-practice coach-speak is old hat for ESPNU at these annual preseason practices, this is the first time a national audience has been in the Pit for the Lobo Howl.

And the university is under some pressure to put on a big-time show, which is why they’re hoping for a regular season-like turnout in the 15,411 seat arena.

“It’s a way for us to show what our facilities are about, what are team is about, what our fans are about,” Neal said. “At the end of the day, everybody has a part of us being successful. … Everybody in the community has a big say in how we do.”

The free event traditionally draws between 3,000 and 4,000 fans. UNM officials would love to see that number at least double tonight with a national audience watching, much as it has when as many as 10,000 fans showed up for brief national television appearances for NCAA Tournament Selection Show events.

Brad Hutchins, associate athletic director for marketing and revenue, said he sees tonight as another opportunity to show networks like ESPN that the Pit, and the Lobos’ rabid fan base, are worthy of future national television appearances. That would include the network sending a crew to the Pit for College Game Day segments that base a full day of broadcasting from one arena each Saturday.

That UNM was even invited as one of the nine teams ESPNU chose for the national broadcast, including perennial powers Duke and preseason national championship favorite Kentucky, shows the program has made strides in becoming a national brand.

“It’s not just for us players,” UNM junior center Alex Kirk said. “It’s an opportunity to show New Mexico that we are one of these programs.”

It’s also an opportunity to wow potential recruits.

Two out-of-state high school players in the 2014 recruiting class – one who has already committed to playing for the Lobos and one who is still choosing between UNM, San Diego State and Washington – will be on hand tonight.

“That’s big-time,” said Zylan Cheatham, a national top 100 ranked recruit from Phoenix South Mountain High School. He is making an official recruiting visit this weekend in Albuquerque before picking his future college next weekend.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be present for something like that when ESPN is there,” he said. “I think that will be a great experience. … I think I probably chose the right weekend to come make my visit.”

Xavier Adams, a guard from Flower Mound (Texas) Marcus High School who gave a verbal commitment to play for the Lobos on a recruiting visit last January, will return to Albuquerque this weekend with his mom, at his own expense, to take in the Howl.

“It’s good they’re getting some of that respect and getting shown on national television, like this,” said Adams. “That’s the program I’m happy to say I’m going to be a part of.”

ESPNU, which is sending former Arizona Wildcat star Miles Simon as the on-air talent, will broadcast portions of the Lobo men’s practice in the 8-9 p.m. hour. It will show portions of practices of the other eight teams in their four-hour broadcast, and also talk with Lobo players and Neal during that hour. Neal will have a microphone on during the entire practice and an ear piece allowing Simon to talk to him during the event to get on-court interaction with the coach during some drills.

“We’re just trying to brand our program and what we’re about and we’re making great strides with that,” Neal said. ” … It’s just a fun deal for our guys and a celebration for our program.”

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