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Neal, Lobos ready to start new chapter vs. Stanford

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Lobos-vs-CardinalST. LOUIS – Craig Neal and Johnny Dawkins, two former ACC rivals now coaching in their first NCAA Tournaments, are at very different junctures in their still young careers.

But both 50-year-old coaches arrived in St. Louis this week with similarly lofty expectations heaped on them for NCAA Tournament success.

Dawkins, the former Duke star in his sixth season coaching the South Region’s No. 10 seed Stanford Cardinal, is trying to save his job after his own athletic director has made it clear not reaching the Big Dance in five previous seasons simply wasn’t going to cut it anymore.

For Neal, the former Georgia Tech star who is in his first season coaching the No. 7 seed New Mexico Lobos, merely getting into the NCAA Tournament isn’t the goal, and the mounting pressure on his shoulders has been as much self-inflicted as anything.

READ MORE: NCAA Tourney notebook: Bairstow gets plenty of love

While Dawkins has been coaching for his job this season, he’s made it a point to ignore press clippings, radio shows and outside chatter about him and his program.

“He doesn’t let outside things affect him,” Stanford forward Josh Huestis told The Associated Press. “That’s had a positive effect on us, as well.”

Dawkins, whose 21-12 Cardinal played in one CBI and two NIT tournaments since his hiring before the 2008-09 season, says he has taken that approach since his high school playing days when his father caught him reading press clippings about himself, even before his All-America career at Duke and subsequent NBA playing days.

“My players will tell you I’m the most mindless guy when it comes to knowing what’s out there,” Dawkins said.

Neal said he had the upmost respect for Dawkins as a player and coach, but that went to a whole other level when Stanford was recruiting his son, Lobo freshman guard Cullen Neal.

“Johnny’s just a class guy,” Neal said. “He does things the right way.”

For Neal, though, the path to dealing with outside distractions has been quite different. He openly acknowledges trying to head off at the pass any perceived slight of his players. For a guy who wears his emotions on his sleeve and isn’t afraid to speak his mind, this has led to more than a few tense situations.

He called in to an Albuquerque-area radio talk show earlier this season when on an out-of-state recruiting trip to shoot down criticism he felt was unfairly being heaped on him after his Lobos beat San Diego State in the Pit.

He’s frequently taken on reporters in news conferences for writing things he may not have agreed with and often worked direct rebuttals of public criticisms of his team’s play into comments in postgame news conferences.

In fact, it was Neal himself very publicly tackling expectations when he landed the Lobos job in April by coining the phrase “unfinished business.” That came in the wake of the team’s embarrassing loss to No. 14 seed Harvard in the Round of 64 last March in Salt Lake City.

“All year I’ve been trying to take that stuff on so it doesn’t get to my guys,” Neal told the Journal . “Yeah, it can be stressful, but I can deal with that. The more I can take on of that stuff, the less (Lobo players) have to deal with it from the outside.”

When his team cut down the nets Saturday in Las Vegas, Nev., after a third-straight Mountain West Conference tournament championship, and earned a second win of the season over San Diego State when the Aztecs held a Top 10 ranking, Neal hoisted the net from atop a ladder in front of thousands of Lobo fans and let out a scream of joy heard from Sin City to the Sandia Mountains.

“I think it was relief. You’re absolutely right,” Neal said. “But my whole thing was to get my guys to where they deserve to be. That was the only pressure that I had. I knew I could do it. I’ve been in this for a long time, been part of this thing for six years and this is the seventh year. I was just very fortunate I inherited a great team. So it was a big relief to get them to that championship. I felt really let down after (the March 8 regular-season loss to SDSU that gave the Aztecs the regular-season title).

“As a coach, you feel like you let them down a little bit not winning (the regular-season title). But now, we start a new chapter.”

So while trying to take on all comers in a very public way probably won’t be his approach to coaching long term, Neal says he knew what his team was capable of and wanted nothing more than to find a way to get them to reach their potential, even if the stress, at times, has seemed to put him on the brink of meltdown.

“Hell, I enjoy every year I get to coach basketball,” Neal said. “Yeah, I had fun. I put a lot of pressure on myself, because I want to succeed and I wanted it for the kids. But yeah, I had a lot of fun.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story

LOBO LINKS: Geoff Grammer’s blog | Schedule/Results | Roster

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