EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final of an 11-part series previewing the University of New Mexico’s 10 Mountain West Conference opponents and its nonleague schedule. To see list of all previews, CLICK HERE.
In April, he was overcome with emotion when he landed the head coaching gig at the University of New Mexico.
In October, it was apparent the honeymoon was still in full swing with Craig Neal.
Now that it’s November, Neal finally gets to settle in and actually coach some official games.
But it won’t be until December when UNM faces arguably as tough a five-game stretch as the program has ever seen, certainly in nonconference play, that Neal will get his first big-time test as the man in charge of the No. 23 Lobos.
“Yeah, he didn’t leave me with a lot of (options) there,” Neal joked, referring to predecessor Steve Alford. “I couldn’t bow out of some of those games.”
Truth is, Neal, whether as assistant coach last season or head coach since April, very much had a hand in landing some of the games in the brutal stretch between Dec. 4 and Dec. 21, which includes five consecutive games against teams that played in last year’s NCAA Tournament. Only two of the games are in the Pit.
The stretch is: Dec. 4 at New Mexico State; Dec. 7 vs. Cincinnati; Dec. 14 vs. Kansas in Kansas City, Mo.; Dec. 17 vs. NMSU; and Dec. 21 vs. Marquette in Las Vegas, Nev.
“We’ve never been challenged like that before,” Neal said. “But I think with the team we have, it’s going to be a good test for them, and it gives me a chance to see where we are.”
On Thursday, Neal learned his team is ranked No. 23 in the preseason AP poll. Kansas and superstar freshman Andrew Wiggins are No. 5, while Marquette is No. 17.
Neal said NMSU will be much better this season and Cincinnati “should” be ranked.
“It’s like we talked about when I got the job,” Neal said. “We have to challenge ourselves. If we’re never going to challenge ourselves, we can’t get to go where we want to go. That’s a long journey, but I think you have to challenge a team like ours to see where we are as far as playing those top teams.”
The Charleston Classic on Nov. 21-24 should provide a test, but there is no denying the December stretch is the key to the Lobos’ nonconference slate.
A season ago, UNM masterfully constructed a schedule that didn’t include many teams with low Ratings Percentage Index rankings, a metric used in seeding the NCAA Tournament that combines wins, losses and strength of schedule. The Lobos, thanks primarily to their 29-win season but also thanks to none of their opponents having really bad seasons, were able to work their way to a No. 2 RPI ranking entering the NCAA Tournament (it dropped to No. 3 in the NCAA’s final RPI list after the tournament).
While the top end of the nonconference schedule is as tough as it’s ever been for UNM, some lower-rated teams (Alabama A&M, UNM’s season opener, had a final RPI last season of 328) will likely prevent UNM from approaching that No. 2 RPI again this season.
Still, if Neal’s team makes its way through December relatively unscathed, the program would likely gain as much national respect from that than it did at any time during last year’s campaign.