Craig Neal’s getting better.
While the admittedly emotional New Mexico men’s basketball coach broke down somewhere in the neighborhood of a dozen times at last year’s Lobos team banquet, he choked up only two or three times Thursday night as he honored the team he said will always be dear to his heart.
“They’ll always be my favorite because they were my first team,” Neal told a sold-out banquet hall of more than 500 fans at the Embassy Suites.
The coach and lifelong basketball junkie – be it as a player, NBA scout, assistant coach or head coach – said this past season was “the most fun I’ve ever had coaching basketball.”
Neal, who just wrapped up his first season as a head coach with a program-record 27 wins, tops for any first-year coach in UNM history, was emotional when honoring departing players Cameron Bairstow, Kendall Williams, Chris Perez and Alex Kirk, who despite having a year of playing eligibility remaining, was part of the same class as the three seniors.
And as Neal asked fans to continue their support moving forward, he almost scoffed at the notion the Lobos will be taking a step back in the 2014-15 season. The rest of the Mountain West Conference, he suggested, looks to the Lobos as the standard in men’s basketball.
“Everybody is chasing us,” Neal said. “… I don’t want to hear any talk about reloading. I don’t want to hear any talk about rebuilding. We’re moving forward.”
Senior-to-be guard Hugh Greenwood echoed his coach’s sentiment about the goals for the next season being less about rebuilding and more about maintaining the position the program has been in at or near the top of the league for several years.
“The guys get it,” Greenwood said. “And the guys know we want to win, and we’ve done it over the years. That’s nothing unusual.”
The move forward, however, will be without arguably one of the top trios in program history. While Williams (California) and Kirk (Florida) didn’t attend Thursday’s banquet while they are out of state preparing for the NBA draft, Bairstow was on hand and got in quite the workout.
Lobo radio color analyst and banquet emcee Scott Didrickson called on the 6-foot-9 Aussie Bairstow throughout the evening to accept award after award and carry back to his table plaque after plaque. He shared the Bob King MVP honor with Williams, who also shared with Kirk the team’s Outstanding Defensive Player award.
Bairstow, who will remain in town to complete his degree while also finalizing contract arrangements with an agent, is a player Didrickson said no doubt will continue to surprise basketball fans in the NBA next season.
The banquet concluded with Neal awarding this year’s new players, including the soon-to-be-transferring freshman Tim Myles, with UNM Lobo letterman jackets. Fellow transfer Nick Banyard, a sophomore, did not attend Thursday’s event.
MOVING FORWARD: While Thursday was about remembering the 2013-14 season, the 2014-15 season is already under way in recruiting.
At the top of the wish list for UNM is 6-foot-9 first-team, junior college All-America swingman Jordan Goodman of Harcum (Pa.) College, who arrived in Albuquerque on Thursday night for a two-day recruiting visit to UNM. The Lobos also will host Washington graduate transfer small forward Desmond Simmons on a recruiting visit Monday and Indiana graduate transfer Austin Etherington later this month.
COACHING FUTURE: Perez, who leaves UNM as the winningest walk-on player in program history, has accepted a summer coaching position with the freshmen boys team at Laguna Acoma High School and will also coach other youth teams this summer. He is an aspiring high school basketball coach who, after graduating next month, is hoping to land a teaching job in the Albuquerque area.