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Men’s basketball: Lobos expecting three recruits to sign

College basketball coaches will tell you recruiting never really stops.

As is the case more and more in recent seasons due to the growing numbers of player transfers (more than 700 transferred from Division I programs after last season), that even applies when there are no scholarships to give.

Oh, and gone are the days when the door shuts on a recruit just because he picks another, or even plays for another college program.

Just look at the University of New Mexico.

Coach Craig Neal’s Lobos are expecting three players – 6-foot-9 forward Connor MacDougall, 6-7 small forward Aher Uguak and 6-5 guard Damien Jefferson – to send in signed National Letters of Intent Wednesday, the first day of the NCAA’s early signing period, to join the team for the 2016-17 season.

That despite there not being a scholarship certain to open off this year’s UNM roster.

“I think with the epidemic of transfers and protecting your program and doing what’s best for your program … I’m going to keep recruiting,” Neal said at a news conference two weeks ago, even before MacDougall, the former Arizona State Sun Devil, gave his verbal commitment to be a Lobo.

J.J. N’Ganga is the only UNM senior on scholarship (DI teams are allowed 13 scholarship players). But he will not play due to injury and might be eligible to appeal for a medical hardship waiver to regain a season of eligibility. Even assuming his Lobo career is over, that opens up just one scholarship.

Neal points out that, in a pinch, he can lift son Cullen Neal’s scholarship and make him a walk-on, which would still get UNM to only two open scholarships.

But, as is the case with every program in the country, there is the expectation of inevitable roster movement to come. UNM saw seven scholarship players with eligibility remaining leave in the past two seasons (Alex Kirk, Merv Lindsay, Cleveland Thomas, Nick Banyard, Tim Myles, Arthur Edwards and Jordan Goodman).

“My job is to make sure that my program is taken care of,” coach Neal said. “So, I’m sure there’s going to be change. I don’t know what change there’s going to be, but I’m going to keep recruiting.”

In the case of MacDougall, who now plays at South Mountain Community College in Phoenix after leaving ASU, it was the sense that UNM never closed the door on him, even after he spurned them once, that brought him back.

“We’ve been in contact ever since,” said MacDougall, the 107th-ranked recruit in the Class of 2014 by “I felt a connection there and a bond since the beginning. … Them sticking with me, them showing they cared and saying they respected my decision no matter what (even when he went to ASU). They didn’t turn their back on me. That’s how they won me over.”

Though coaches cannot speak specifically about recruits until they sign a letter of intent, Neal said he tries not to ever close the door on a relationship built during a recruitment.

“I just think that no matter what happens, no matter how hard you recruit somebody, you can’t get bent out of shape and be bitter about a kid choosing another school,” the coach said.

As for UNM’s two high school recruits, both said the Lobos’ up-tempo offense was a big draw, but not as much as the bond they felt with the team and both Craig Neal and assistant coach Alan Huss.

“I built a good relationship with the coaches and the teammates (on his October recruiting visit),” said Jefferson, who starts his senior season at East Chicago (Ind.) Central High School this month and is the son of former Lobo Everette Jefferson.

“They just overall made me feel at home.”

Uguak, the small forward at Harry Ainlay High School in Edmonton, Alberta, said he knew he wanted to be a Lobo from the moment he came to Albuquerque last month.

“It instantly felt like home when I was there, all the great people I met, the fans, the atmosphere, and how every time I spoke to coach Neal and the rest of the coaching staff it was just a great feeling,” said Uguak. “I was comfortable right away and everyone felt like family. After the first day I was there on my visit, I knew I wanted to be a Lobo.”

IT’S ABOUT TIME: Southern California on Tuesday announced its Nov. 21 home game against UNM will be at 8:30 p.m. (7:30 p.m. local time in Los Angeles). It will be broadcast on the Pac-12 Network.