Lobos announce full 2015-16 men’s hoops schedule

Season 3 of the Craig Neal era of Lobo basketball will include at least seven 2015 NCAA Tournament teams, 16 home games in the Pit, a return to Indiana and Christmas on the islands of Hawaii.

Oh, and next year, it looks like UTEP will indeed be back in the Pit.

UNM on Tuesday announced its 2015-16 men’s basketball schedule, unveiling dates and opponents for 31 regular-season games, including 16 at home for the first time in three years. There are also a pair of exhibition games in the Pit.

VIEW FULL SCHEDULE BELOW

“Probably a tougher schedule than our team is ready for, but we’ve got to start playing tougher schedules. I think it’s going to be a good one,” UNM coach Craig Neal said.

UNM had the strongest strength of schedule ranking among Mountain West schools in both 2012-13 and 2013-14. But last year, thanks in part to four opponents ranked 250 or higher in both the RPI and the KenPom rankings, UNM’s strength of schedule was just fifth best in the league.

This season’s UNM schedule has only one team that finished last season ranked worse than 250 (of 351 Division I teams) in the RPI.

The 2015 NCAA Tournament teams on the Lobos’ schedule are Northern Iowa (in the Pit), Purdue (in West Lafayette, Ind.), Texas Southern (in the Pit), New Mexico State (Nov. 15 in Las Cruces and Dec. 16 in the Pit) and league opponents San Diego State, Boise State and Wyoming.

The Lobos could face more NCAA Tournament teams in the Dec. 22-25 Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu, the third year of a four-year contract UNM has to play in an ESPN-owned nonconference tournament. UNM opens the tournament with Auburn, and the field includes former rival BYU, 2013 NCAA Tournament nemesis Harvard, Oklahoma, Hawaii, Washington State and Northern Iowa, setting up the potential of two games between the Lobos and Panthers.

The schedule breaks down like this: There are 18 Mountain West games (nine in the Pit, nine on the road) and 13 nonconference games (seven in the Pit, three true road games and three neutral-court games).

UNM will also play exhibition games in the Pit against CSU-Pueblo (Nov. 3) and Rogers State (Nov. 6). The first regular-season game vs. Texas Southern is Nov. 13.

This will be the first time in 13 years none of New Mexico’s three Division II universities — Eastern New Mexico, New Mexico Highlands and Western New Mexico — will be on UNM’s exhibition or regular-season schedule.

Neal said it was the CSU-Pueblo game that replaced one of the in-state schools, but insists it is not a sign of a permanent shift in scheduling philosophy.

“The only reason I played Pueblo is because (Lobo freshman) Dane Kuiper’s brother (Braydon) plays there,” Neal said. “That was a decision I made — a family decision, a team decision. Dane’s committed to us, and it’s my responsibility that he’s part of the family. I thought it was kind of cool that he could play against his brother one time and his brother can come here and play in the Pit.”

While there was an actual legislative mandate for UNM to schedule one of the in-state schools in the late 1980s, that ended in 1996. Lawmakers in the past have strongly urged UNM to keep at least some of the money in the state that is used to pay for exhibition opponents.

Due to the MWC’s 18-game unbalanced schedule, the Lobos will play home-and-home series with eight of their league foes, but will play Wyoming (in the Pit) and Colorado State (in Fort Collins) only one time each.

UTEP UPDATE: As has already been announced, the UNM/Arizona series is back on for 2016-17 (in Tucson) and 2017-18 (in the Pit) nonconference schedules. Tuesday, Neal said that while no contracts have been signed, it looks like UNM will renew the UTEP series in those same years, playing the Miners in the Pit in 2016-17 in the same nonconference season as the road game in Tucson, and returning the game in El Paso in 2017-18.

BIG NIK: The most media attention at Tuesday’s open practice for the Lobos, which is the last of the summer, was for 7-foot-1, 257-pound freshman center Nikola Scekic of Serbia.

“He’s got a long way to go, but he’s something that’s unique for us to get a kid that big,” Neal said. “Really happy to have him. He can shoot it real well.”

THIS AND THAT: Lobo sophomore Joe Furstinger had his appendix removed three weeks ago and was practicing Tuesday. … Sam Logwood and Cullen Neal have each had minor ankle injuries during summer workouts (Neal’s just a part of the same lengthy rehab to the injury that cost him most of the 2014-15 season), but both were full speed, full participants Tuesday. … Junior center Obij Aget has practiced all summer without the bulky knee brace he wore since tearing an ACL three years ago. … Xavier Adams drew the praise of his coach Tuesday as being the player that coach Neal has been “most impressed” with in summer drills. Neal noted that the sophomore played all last year with an right elbow injury that the coach thinks caused more pain, and hindered his shooting, more than Adams let on.

Other Lobos basketball links: Geoff Grammer’s sports blog | 2014-15 roster | 2014-15 schedule/results | DNA of Lobo Basketball | Search MWC coaching contracts Click on score after game to read Journal’s game story and view game stats.

* Mountain West Conference game # ESPN Diamond Head Classic (Honolulu, Hawaii) ! Mountain West-Missouri Valley Challenge series NOTE: Game times and television information subject to change and based on UNM and Mountain West officials.