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Lobos fall short of fulfilling promise of NCAA Tournament run

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UNM junior guard Hugh Greenwood said the Lobos are "obviously disappointed" about the end to their season with an NCAA Tourney loss. (Charlie Riedel/The Associated Press)

UNM junior guard Hugh Greenwood said the Lobos are “obviously disappointed” about the end to their season with an NCAA Tourney loss. (Charlie Riedel/The Associated Press)

ST. LOUIS – They entered the season with a new coach, a new energy and a bold proclamation that the New Mexico Lobos had “Unfinished Business” to tend to in the NCAA Tournament.

They returned home to Albuquerque on Friday after losing to Stanford 58-53 in another Round of 64 loss to a lower-seeded team, facing the harsh reality that the 2013-14 season would be more business as usual, less a fulfilled promise.

“I think we took care of a lot of business this year,” Lobos center Cameron Bairstow said. “Unfortunately we just couldn’t take care of it in the one area where we struggled in the last two years.”

READ MORE: One and done — again — as Lobos lose to lower seeded Stanford

The reality is this team still accomplished plenty. Craig Neal was the first UNM rookie coach to win 27 games, a league tournament title or even play in the NCAA Tournament.

But was pushing a catchphrase the first year coach coined last April in his introductory news conference fair to the 2013-14 team? Or did printing it on T-shirts, using it as a social media tagline and essentially taking a Sweet 16 or bust mentality only add to the pressure heaped on a team that just lost a first-round NBA draft pick while also breaking in an inexperienced coaching staff?

“I don’t have any unfinished business,” Neal said Friday when asked about use of that tag. “I mean, I’ve not – it doesn’t concern me. We’ve done about everything you can do. It is just getting better in the tournament. We’ve won championships, regular-season championships, won conference-tournament championships. We just haven’t found our rhythm in this game (Round of 64) or the second game (Round of 32).”

Neal actually told local media Monday the “Unfinished Business” tag was never even meant to apply to this year’s team.

“It hasn’t been tagged on this year. That’s what you all (local media) keep tagging on this year,” Neal said. “It’s our program. … Yeah, this team is a part of that. I’m not putting all the pressure on this team. We have to do it as a program.”

But by this week, it was hard to back off what seemed to be a season of embracing the term. Senior guard Kendall Williams used the phrase himself on UNM’s Senior Night, saying the Lobos had some unfinished business to take care of against the San Diego State Aztecs (the Lobos won the Mountain West tournament over SDSU) and beyond.

In October, Neal explained the season slogan as one that embraced rising expectations.

“I’m not running from it,” he told the Journal at the Mountain West Conference preseason media conference. “… (Fans are) all good with all the championships we’ve won, but at the end of the day we’ve got to do better in the NCAA Tournament. I think if I don’t talk about it or I’m not genuine about it, then that’s not who I am.”

Friday, two Lobos expected to return next year said they don’t think the phrase – or to the larger point the expectations placed on the team – are a problem.

“We’re going to carry it forward,” said sophomore guard Cleveland “Pancake” Thomas. “I feel like it’s no added pressure for us.”

Junior guard Hugh Greenwood said he not only didn’t mind use of the phrase this season, but hopes Lobo fans don’t alter their expectations moving forward, despite the reality that Bairstow and Williams will be gone. So too could junior center Alex Kirk, who after a season of sometimes being the target of fan criticism will earn his degree this semester. He could opt to turn pro in an overseas league, try to make an NBA roster or even explore making a graduate transfer to another school .

“I’m interested to see if they use it next year, but we have no excuses,” Greenwood said. “Obviously we’re disappointed, but the thing we really wanted to do and we still want to do next year is make an imprint in the tournament. That’s still the last thing we want to tick off the checklist for (this program).”

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

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