A lighthearted, happy and relaxed Craig Neal put a bow on the 2013-14 Lobo basketball season Wednesday, saying he was proud of what his team accomplished while acknowledging certain goals were once again left unfulfilled.
The first-year coach, two days removed from receiving a 2-year contract extension aimed at keeping him at the University of New Mexico through the 2020 season, said his primary goal for the season was getting his players back to the NCAA Tournament, but was heartbroken when they fell short of advancing past the Round of 64 thanks to a 58-53 loss to Stanford on March 21.
“I’m glad everyone’s here (and for) giving me 10 days to recover,” Neal joked as he opened his 35-minute session with local media. “… There were several goals we set, and we didn’t meet all those, but I’m really proud of the team I coached this year.”
Neal said the focus is now squarely on the future. The first order of business is filling a pair of scholarships that just opened. Forwards Nick Banyard, a sophomore, and Tim Myles, a freshman, were granted their releases from scholarships this week according to Neal.
“They’re great kids. Nick was part of two championship (seasons) and did a lot of good things, but he wants to see if there’s something better for him out there,” Neal said. “… Tim is going to get closer to home. This just might not have been a good fit for him.”
Both players, who remain on scholarship until the end of the semester and are expected to leave in good academic standing, took to Twitter to thank Lobo fans for their time in Albuquerque.
The Lobos also await a decision from senior-to-be Alex Kirk on whether the 7-footer will return to play next year, pursue a professional career or entertain a graduate transfer and be immediately eligible to play at another school since he is expected to receive his undergraduate degree this semester from UNM.
“Alex is exploring his options,” Neal said, adding UNM has already sent in paperwork to the NBA Undergraduate Advisory Committee, which should return a report to Kirk gauging his draft prospects in the coming week or so.
“Right now he’s a Lobo, and we’ll go from there. I’m going to support Alex and any of my players on any decision they make.”
Alan Kirk, Alex’s dad, said the report from the NBA underclassmen committee is what the family is waiting on now, but added the decision his son is weighing isn’t merely about the NBA.
“We’re in a wait-and-see mode now,” Alan Kirk said. “Alex is focusing on his academics right now and really what we’re going to sit down and talk about, and he will ultimately have to decide for himself is whether another year of amateurism is best or going professional.”
Alex Kirk, who sat out a season due to back surgery, is already 22 years old, which would make him one of, if not the oldest center if drafted this season. The window of earning potential for a post player could be limited, especially if he waits another year to try his hand at a professional career, in the United States or overseas.
Should he come back to UNM, though, Neal made it clear what the Lobos will do.
“If Alex comes back, we’ll play through Alex. Alex will be the center point of what we do,” Neal said. “And hopefully he can come back and have a year like Cam (Bairstow) did. I’m trying to be very positive about everything. I think we play through him, and we just kind of fill in (other) spots and go from there.”
Neal can’t comment what some of those filler spots might be for next year until players sign with the school, but he did acknowledge transfer players eligible immediately to play next season – be it a junior college player or a graduate transfer – are in play.
As for those departing Lobo seniors – Bairstow, Kendall Williams and Chris Perez – Neal said he hopes to be as involved as he can in helping each in their next ventures.
Perez hopes to land a permanent high school coaching gig in Albuquerque.
Bairstow and Williams will both pursue professional careers. While Williams has already hired an agent and will do most of his prep work for professional teams in California, according to Neal, Bairstow will remain in Albuquerque to train, hopes to hire an agent next week and will not visit with any pro teams until after the end of the semester in mid-May.
Williams and Bairstow were invited to the Portsmouth Invitational tournament for pro prospects starting in two weeks, but Neal said both declined.
Senior-to-be Hugh Greenwood will travel home to Australia to play for the Australian national team with the hopes of being invited to play on the Boomers squad for the 2016 Olympics along with Bairstow.
HIGH HONOR: Basketball Times, a monthly publication compiled by basketball writers across the country, published in its April edition a list of the Top 30 “Up-and-coming coaches” and included Neal at No. 2.
The first-year Lobos coach was slated one spot behind No. 1 Johnny Dawkins of Stanford, who just eliminated the Lobos from the NCAA Tournament, and No. 3 Kevin Ollie of Connecticut, who is in the Final Four and in the same field of the Puerto Rico Classic as the Lobos next November. Other notables on the list: No. 6 Dave Rice, UNLV; No. 9 Reggie Theus, Cal State-Northridge (former NMSU coach); and No. 26 Joe Dooley, Florida Gulf Coast (former UNM assistant under Fran Fraschilla).