ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Maybe the messages have been a bit mixed through the years for Craig Neal.
When he arrived on campus at Georgia Tech 30 years ago, coach Bobby Cremins, someone Neal has said is one of his biggest mentors in the game, had a simple message for the wiry guard they called “Noodles.”
“Slow down,” Cremins told the Journal over the summer. “On the court, he played so fast. He would go 120 miles an hour. I finally got him to slow up a little bit, but not much.”
By the age of 26, Neal was playing for Paul Westhead and the Denver Nuggets in the 1990-91 season.
“My first game with Westhead, I dribbled down and I was open,” Neal said. “He goes, ‘Why didn’t you shoot it?’ I said, ‘Well I hadn’t even made a pass.’ He goes, ‘Well it was perfect. It was seven seconds into the clock.'”
Neal says Westhead, whose Loyola Marymount teams led the nation in scoring for three seasons before landing the NBA job in Denver, had said he wanted the Nuggets to “score 130 points a game and shoot it every 14 seconds.”
Tonight, in his first regular-season game as a head coach, Neal gets to show off the pace he wants his 23rd-ranked New Mexico Lobos to play. The expectation is that it won’t be as fast as Westhead’s, but it also isn’t likely to resemble the pace Lobo fans grew accustomed to in the past six seasons when he served as associate head coach.
While he did run the offense for the past six seasons, Neal wasn’t making the final decision on tempo and pace of the game under his predecessor Steve Alford.
“I’ve always told myself when I was going to get a chance that I was going to push the pace the first 15 seconds (of each possession) to try and get either an early touch in the paint or a good drive to the basket where you get fouled or a good shot,” Neal said. “… I’ve always thought all along, even when I played, that the easiest offense is getting a stop, then (get out in) transition.”
Though the competition wasn’t on par with what they’ll face in the regular season, including tonight’s opponent, Alabama A&M, the Lobos did push the tempo in their exhibition blowouts over Division II Eastern New Mexico and NAIA school Jamestown.
In those two games, UNM averaged 76 possessions and 90.5 points. In the 2012-13 season, the Lobos averaged 63.2 possessions per game and 67.3 points. The national average of possessions per game was 65.9 a season ago.
Neal also pointed out after the two exhibition games, “Guys, we haven’t pressed (on defense) yet, so it can get faster.”
Whether that happens remains to be seen, but the point is clear. These Lobos will push the pace.
But while Neal points out many of the guards on the UNM roster are actually better in transition than in a half-court-based offense, the traditional wisdom is that big teams can’t run. The Lobos, meanwhile, boast a starting frontcourt of 7-foot, 245-pound Alex Kirk and 6-9, 250-pound Cameron Bairstow.
So can the two coexist?
Neal said he thinks Kirk and Bairstow are running the floor better than at any time in their basketball careers. It may not be a coincidence that both big men participated this summer in the World University Games (Kirk for Team USA and Bairstow for the Australian Boomers).
“I kind of learned this summer if you’re not getting up and down the court, you’re not going to play,” Kirk said. “I definitely learned a lot.”
SPECIAL VISITOR: Class of 2015 hoops recruit Jordan Hunter, a 5-10 point guard from Beaumont (Texas) Ozen High, will be at tonight’s game on an unofficial recruiting visit.