LAS VEGAS, Nev. — With 10 words after a season-ending loss to Air Force in Wednesday’s play-in round of the Mountain West tournament, Craig Neal summed up the wishful thinking of just about everyone in Lobo Nation.
“I think we’re just going to push the reset button,” the second-year University of New Mexico men’s basketball coach said.
His answer was in response to whether the Lobos would pursue playing in a low-level postseason tournament — he said they will not. But the reality is by the end of an agonizing eight-game losing streak in February, he, the team and certainly most of the fans were more than ready for a do-over.
There is no erasing the 2014-15 season.
Just like Hugh Greenwood will go down as one of the most popular Lobos ever, on and off the court and for a variety of reasons , including taking on an unfamiliar and uncomfortable role with a team desperate for offense, the season will also be remembered for a sub-.500 record (15-16 overall). For its eight-game losing streak in February. And for a play-in round loss in the league tournament.
“I learned a lot,” Neal said of the season, though he didn’t get into specifics. “I learned a lot about myself. I learned a lot about my program. I know where we have to go. At the end of the day I feel pretty good about what our staff did, how hard we worked. … I’m not satisfied where we finished. But my kids gave great effort, and I’m really proud of them. We’ve established a winning culture there and hopefully we’ll get it back to that next year.”
His boss, UNM athletic director Paul Krebs, said he remains optimistic about the future.
“I think the won-loss record was disappointing,” Krebs said during a Friday interview at the Thomas & Mack Center, site of the league tournament.
“I believe both coach Neal and I have higher expectations for the program. … I think when you step back and look at the ‘whys’ behind where we ended up, I think it makes sense. We had a lot of young guys, a lot of first-year players, a lot of new faces, unexpected injuries. You don’t feel good about the won-loss record, but I have great excitement about the future.”
Here is look back at just a few of the talking points of the season that was and what fans can expect moving forward:
SHORT-HANDED: Even before the injury bug hit , the Lobos were already entering the season without the same firepower they had in recent league-championship seasons. Regardless of who the coach was, this team had lost Kendall Williams, Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow.
But the program also had a lot of staff turnover (a new assistant coach, director of operations, strength coach and video administrator, as well as the team’s longtime trainer leaving midseason for family reasons) and nine new players on the roster (six who played this season, three who redshirted), leading to a general lack of continuity.
All that was before the loss to injury of several players, including three expected in the preseason to not only be starters, but top offensive threats: Cullen Neal (lost for the season Nov. 20), Jordan Goodman (arrived from junior college injured and never started a game for UNM) and Deshawn Delaney (the team’s leading scorer, hurt just before the MWC tournament).
HELP COMING? The healthy returns of Neal and Goodman would be big first steps for the Lobos — who lose four-year starter Hugh Greenwood and Delaney — plus the usual, though yet unforeseen, annual transfers that happen at every program.
Butler transfer Elijah Brown is a sharpshooting guard and Samford transfer Tim Williams is an offensive threat in the post — both things this season’s Lobos sorely lacked.
UNM also welcomes in a freshman class that addresses needs in Dane Kuiper and Anthony Mathis, who can both shoot from the outside, and Jordan Hunter, an undersized ballhandler who can score.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen because we have a couple guys that never played in this league, and I think this league is a lot better than everybody thinks it is,” coach Neal said. “Just because you’ve had success somewhere else doesn’t mean it carries over to what happens in this league. … Our guys are going to have to really buckle down to get better. But I’m looking forward to it.”
FANS: UNM still led the league in average home attendance (14,571) and, despite comments from SDSU coach Steve Fisher about leaving early or those from coach Neal when some were leaving before a Senior Night ceremony, fans still clearly did their part — considering the results from the team.
“We can talk about a game not selling out or somebody leaving early, but the reality is we lost eight in a row going into the Wyoming game (March 7) and it was a sellout,” Krebs said. “Our fans deserve a lot of credit. We averaged (14,571), down a little bit, but still great crowds. Even when we were losing, they were there.”
THAT EXTENSION: In the offseason, UNM gave Craig Neal a contract extension and a pay raise after his first season on the job. Does Krebs have any second thoughts on that?
“We can’t look back,” Krebs said. “We have a lot of belief in Craig, and we want him here for a long time.”
OFF THE CUFF: Be it postgame comments about his players, reminders of past successes or even when he bemoaned fans for leaving the Pit before a Senior Night ceremony, there was no mistaking every word Craig Neal uttered was analyzed.
At his final news conference after losing to Air Force, when asked what he learned from the 2014-15 season, he mixed self-reflection with an out of nowhere reminder to reporters that he won the tournament at the end of the 2013-14 season.
“This isn’t trying to be cocky or arrogant, but there’s not too many people in this tournament that have won this tournament, and I have,” Neal said. “You can go down the coaches in our league, see who has won it, who hasn’t. I’m one of those ones that has. My goal is to try to come back and win it again.”
So what did his boss think of his coach’s public comments?
“Craig’s a very emotional guy,” Krebs said. “He’s a very honest guy. … I don’t think he’s tried to be critical of his players. I think, at times, he’s gotten caught up in the emotion of the moment. And also, he’s speaking from the heart. In my mind, and I’ve listened to his interviews, I don’t think he’s throwing players under the bus. I think in highly charged moments, he’s very direct.
“… I think any team, you have to have trust and respect, and it starts in the locker room. I think these players and coaches have a love and a trust in that locker room.”