ST. LOUIS – When Craig Neal and Johnny Dawkins last met on a basketball court in the 1986 ACC tournament – Dawkins with eventual national finalist Duke, Neal with the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets – Neal had a chance to be a star.
“I missed about an 18-foot jump shot to win the ACC tournament,” said Neal, now the first-year head coach of the New Mexico Lobos.
“It’s one of those things that you learn from your failures. And I learned from that. I still get mad at Mark (Price, his Georgia Tech teammate). I ask him why he didn’t shoot it and (instead) passed it to me. So it’s one of those experiences that I have learned from, and I’ve gotten better for it.”
Neal went on over the next two seasons to be the Yellow Jackets’ star, including setting a still-standing Georgia Tech single season record for assists (303 in 32 games) as a senior.
And as he leads the NCAA Tournament’s South Region No. 7 seed Lobos (27-6) into today’s game against Dawkins’ Stanford Cardinal (21-12), a 10 seed, Neal’s mantra is much the same: Learn from your past failures.
A year ago, it was the Lobos as a No. 3 seed who lost focus on the Harvard Crimson, falling in Salt Lake City in the Round of 64. While UNM looked ahead to an anticipated Round of 32 showdown with the Arizona Wildcats, Harvard abruptly ended the Lobos’ season with that elusive Sweet 16 berth left far out of reach.
“You know, we talk about it all the time,” UNM senior Kendall Williams said. “It was a tough loss, but at the end of the day everyone loses. … People ask if we learned from it and sure we have. It is tough to go out like that. You represent your program, so I think it helped us go in with a better mindset.”
Focus hasn’t been a problem for Williams’ 6-foot-9 senior power forward teammate Cameron Bairstow, who seemed to be the talk of the pregame news conferences Thursday in St. Louis.
“I think he is one of the best big men we have seen all year,” Dawkins said. “He’s a great player. Tremendous improvement over the course of his career, which means he’s a hard worker. What jumps out is his versatility with his size. Not only is he a very physical low-post player, but a very capable shooter on the perimeter from 15 to 17 feet, as well.”
Asked for comparisons to players they’ve seen this season in the Pac-12 or elsewhere, Stanford’s Dwight Powell, a 6-10 NBA prospect, said he thought Bairstow reminded him of UCLA’s Tony Parker, a 6-9, 255-pound reserve forward who averages 6.8 points, 4.5 rebounds and 17.5 minutes per game.
Dawkins also mentioned Parker, but said Bairstow also has the ability to stretch the floor a bit. The Stanford coach later amended his comments to reflect the reality that the Cardinal probably haven’t seen a player all season who can compare to the Lobos’ All-America candidate in the post.
“Having watched the amount of tape that I watched – that’s what I do – he’s a terrific player,” Dawkins said. “I haven’t seen players at his size that are any better than he is. So he’s worthy of any accolades that he receives.”
Powell, a slender 240-pound face-up forward, said he realizes the Cardinal big men have their hands full with the physical nature of Bairstow and UNM’s 7-foot center Alex Kirk.
“We have to be aware they are going to the glass every time defensively, offensively. They’re going to fight for their position hard every possession,” Powell said. “Since they are bigger, since they are stronger, we have to make sure we are on point every single possession and use our speed and quickness and move our feet in order to get an advantage.”
But dealing with the Lobos’ size on the boards won’t be the only concern for Stanford. Averaging fewer than six 3-pointers per games, the Cardinal offense is predicated on scoring near the rim. And that feeds directly into the Lobos’ defensive strength.
UNM ranks fourth in the nation in 2-point field-goal defense, allowing teams to shoot just 41.4 percent from inside the 3-point line, well below the national average of 48.5 percent.
“With that size and girth, there’s not much room in the paint oftentimes because of the way they play,” Dawkins said. “They do a really good job of playing back-line defense. They shrink the floor and make it difficult to get to the basket.”
HE SAID IT: Hours before No. 12 Harvard upset No. 5 Cincinnati on Thursday, Williams had a word of caution for the Bearcats, a team UNM beat in the Pit in December.
“I had respect for that team (Harvard) going into the game and more respect now,” Williams said. “And hopefully Cincinnati has some respect for them, because they were a good team last year and they are an even better team this year.”