ST. LOUIS – Through similarly red, teary eyes as 13 other players in a small, crowded yet desolate locker room tucked beneath the 18,809-seat Scottrade Center on Friday afternoon, University of New Mexico junior point guard Hugh Greenwood said he hopes Lobo fans don’t change their tune.
The three year-starter and senior-to-be, who has helped lead the program to the Big Dance in each of his first three seasons, wants fans to keep the faith despite the harsh reality that the 2014-15 season will feature a very different roster.
“I know things will look different, but fans should still expect us to be competing for championships and getting back here (to the NCAA Tournament),” Greenwood said. “That’s what I knew we’re going to be working for. We have to get this thing to the next step. I’m looking forward to next year.”
Nevertheless, the Lobos (27-7) who finish the season ranked 17th in the country will lose 2013 Mountain West Player of the Year Kendall Williams and 2014 breakout player Cameron Bairstow, an All-America candidate who just completed one of the most dominant single seasons in program history.
That duo combined for 49.2 percent of the team’s scoring and took more than 42 percent of the team’s shots this season.
Mountain West foes San Diego State, UNLV and Colorado State are all boasting highly regarded recruiting or transfer classes, which will make the Lobos’ bid for a regular-season title a tough one.
Craig Neal and his coaching staff enter the offseason hitting the recruiting trail hard with the anticipation of one or more scholarships becoming available from transferring underclassmen this offseason. There is no question, though, that the No. 1 recruit for the program right now was sharing that locker room with Greenwood on Friday.
Junior center Alex Kirk, the 7-footer from Los Alamos who was part of the same recruiting class as Williams, Bairstow and current Chicago Bull Tony Snell – who left school early a year ago for the NBA draft – is weighing his options.
Obviously, staying at UNM for a fifth year is one of those options. But so, too, is turning pro (going abroad or making a run at an NBA roster) or exploring a transfer to another Division I program without having to sit out a season. He is on track to graduate this semester from UNM, a status that would allow him to play immediately at another school.
“I have no idea right now,” Kirk said Saturday of his future with the team. “My head’s not really in the right spot right now. I’ll make that decision when it’s right for me. I’ll need to take some time, sit down with Pops, talk about it with my family, with Coach (Neal) and try to see where I stand and see what’s best for my future.”
It is reasonable to think top programs around the country would be interested in the services of a veteran 7-foot defensive presence like Kirk, who also has a polished offensive game for a post player. But that option also runs the risk of not adapting well to a new system or having a younger, blue-chip recruit monopolize minutes (see Kansas, with freshman phenom Joel Embiid getting the vast majority of playing time after Tarik Black came over as a graduate transfer from Memphis).
Kirk missed two games in January due to a stress reaction in his shin, an injury he played with for several games prior. He acknowledged the past season was tough at times; many fans rode him hard despite him improving his numbers over his 2013 All-Mountain West first-team season and solidifying his place as one of the league’s top defenders.
“I definitely don’t think I met expectations,” Kirk said.
“I know the numbers were up, but I think a lot of people were kind of ready for me to take that next step. I think at the start (of the season) it was there and then we kind of went to other options. Not saying it was a bad thing, but me, Kendall and Cam can’t all be averaging 20 (points) and 10 rebounds or 10 assists a game.”
Should Kirk move on with Bairstow and Williams, the Lobos would then be missing out next year on 66.1 percent of their scoring, 60.2 percent of their shot attempts, 50 percent of their rebounding and 80.2 percent of this season’s blocked shots.
It’s hard to know how much to expect from incoming freshmen Xavier Adams, a guard from Texas, and Joe Furstinger, a forward from California, until they get on campus.
Senior-to-be Deshawn Delaney should see a big jump in productivity next year. His slashing, attack-the-rim style wasn’t exactly conducive to this season’s scheme, which emphasized feeding the ball to the big frontcourt players clogging the lane. A year under his belt learning the sometimes complex UNM game plan won’t hurt.
Cullen Neal, the high-energy, sometimes polarizing coach’s son, will likely step into the starting guard spot vacated by Williams after averaging 7.1 points per game.
Guard Cleveland “Pancake” Thomas said Saturday it was frustrating going from a starter at the beginning of the 2013-14 season to a 4-minute bench player in Saturday’s loss, but he plans to use that as his motivation this offseason.
“You want to get in the gym and work on your game,” Thomas said. “If I got four minutes, how can I get eight? We have big shoes to fill and some work to do, but we’re ready to do that work.”