Craig Neal has one huge fan in Fort Collins.
The University of New Mexico coach, who two years ago was a finalist for the Colorado State job that instead went to Larry Eustachy, has thoroughly impressed the guy who is now coaching the Rams.
“Noodles has done a great job. I think it’s one of the tougher coaching scenarios to walk into,” Eustachy said Saturday after the Lobos’ 68-66 win in Moby Arena dropped him to 0-4 against UNM since taking the Rams job.
“I thought last year for us (taking over a CSU team with five starting seniors and high fan expectations) was very difficult, but I think this year for him, particularly at the University of New Mexico – you see we have a life up here in Colorado. There’s no life in New Mexico. It’s all basketball. … That’s a joke.”
What he wasn’t joking about, however, was his praise for Neal. A segment of fans continue to be critical, or at the very least skeptical, of the first-year UNM coach especially after home losses to New Mexico State and UNLV. But Eustachy said he’s been almost in awe of how Neal has managed to balance preseason Sweet 16 expectations, changes on the coaching staff, the loss of Tony Snell and still has his team sitting pretty with a 15-4 overall record and a 6-1 Mountain West mark that includes a 4-0 start on the road.
Adding to Eustachy’s positive impression of the job Neal has done this season was how the Lobos handled the loss of 7-foot center Alex Kirk on Saturday after the big man had made 51 consecutive starts. Junior point guard Hugh Greenwood also had his streak of 51 consecutive games started end in December due to injury. The Lobos went 2-1 without him in the lineup.
“Right now,” Eustachy said, “he’s right up there as coach of the year. It hasn’t been easy.”
Of course you’d be hard-pressed to find many who wouldn’t hand the league’s top coaching honor this season to San Diego State’s Steve Fisher, if his team wins the league title. The Aztecs are on a 17-game winning streak and have a top-10 national ranking. But it is also clear Neal’s performance in his first 19 games as a head coach has been praiseworthy in the eyes of his peers around the league.
KIRK UPDATE: After Sunday’s practice in Logan, Utah, the Lobos still had not made a final determination on whether Kirk would play Tuesday night at Utah State. Kirk missed Saturday’s game with what Neal would describe only as “an undisclosed” lower leg injury.
The Journal can confirm that initial reports indicating Kirk has a foot injury, including one from the official @UNMHoops Twitter account that used the phrase “foot injury,” were erroneous. Kirk’s injury is in the lower leg, not in the foot or ankle. Doctors did not find a break when they examined him after Tuesday’s win over Boise State or when they did further testing Wednesday, Neal said.
HUGH’S BEEN HUGE: Since Greenwood returned to the starting lineup Jan. 4 after nursing a right wrist injury, he’s quietly reminded the league that the Lobos have a “Core Four” and not merely a “Big Three.”
Last week Greenwood hit five 3-pointers and scored 20 points in a home win over Boise State. Saturday the junior from Australia had eight points, hit what amounted to the game-winning 3-pointer with under a minute to play and grabbed a crucial rebound with 40 seconds left. That helped Kendall Williams (23 points) and Cameron Bairstow (19 points) lead the Lobos to victory.
“He was the story,” Eustachy said of Greenwood. “You expect that from the other two, but Greenwood, his two 3′s were phenomenal coming off the injury.”
Through seven MWC games, Greenwood is averaging 8.7 points, 5.0 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 0.9 turnovers, 1.3 steals and 2.3 made 3-pointers per game. He ranks in the top 10 in the MWC in 3-pointers made in league games, assists, steals and is second in the conference with a 3.8 assist-to-turnover ratio.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK: The past week presented three seemingly worthy résumés for the league’s player of the week honor, which is announced each Monday.
UNM’s Williams, San Diego State’s Xavier Thames and Wyoming’s Larry Nance Jr. each led their team to a pair of wins last week and had stellar stat lines.
• Williams averaged 20.5 points, 7.0 assists, 2.0 steals and hit eight 3-pointers in wins over Boise State and at Colorado State. He scored 19 points and hit five 3-pointers in the second half alone of the victory over the Rams.
• Thames averaged 23.0 points, 3.0 assists, 2.0 steals and hit 14 free throws in road wins at San Jose State and Utah State. He scored 23 of his career-high 31 points after halftime of the overtime victory at Utah State.
• Nance averaged 19.5 points, 10.5 rebounds, 2.5 blocks shots and shot 58.3 percent from the field in wins at Air Force and vs. Nevada. In Saturday’s overtime win over the Wolf Pack he hit a game-winning jumper with 3 seconds remaining to give Wyoming a four-game league winning streak, its longest since 2009.
HE SAID IT: While CSU’s Eustachy was far more specific about his thoughts on the way Saturday’s game was officiated in Fort Collins, a game with several mistakes and questionable calls made both ways in the second half by referees, Neal was more diplomatic.
“I just think they did the best job they could,” the Lobos coach said.