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Commentary: Now a few words from Craig Neal

JOHNSON-Ed_2012They came by the thousands to the corner of University Boulevard and Avenida Cesar Chavez, much as they have for 50 years.

They first arrived in early November and returned with regularity until the first day of March. A handful of them walked with canes. Some of them were mere children beginning their indoctrination into the curious world that is Lobo basketball.

Coach Craig Neal, resplendent in his business suits and shaggy silver hair, would take the stage, walking the stone-gray concrete carpet of the Pit ramp like a nominee for best director in a melodrama – happy to be there, but still hopeful for a win.

There were more wins than losses for Neal in what passed for the 2015-16 college basketball season in these parts — but barely. 17 up; 15 down. That’s coming off a 15-16 season the year before. How do we evaluate it? Let’s review a few words from Craig Neal.

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• • •

“Steve (Alford) set the bar really high, and I’m going to jump over it.”

— Craig Neal, April 3, 2013

There was also something about unfinished business, but let’s return to our current evaluation.

• • •

“I just think we’ll be hard to guard.”

— After the 2015 Lobo Howl

UNM averaged 76 points a game and shot 46.5 percent from the field. It also averaged 15.3 turnovers a game.

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Oops, I mentioned turnovers.

• • •

“There’s one thing I do know. I don’t try to be an electrician. I’m not an engineer. I don’t work at Sandia (National Laboratories). I don’t work up at Los Alamos. I don’t try to be a radio host.

“I do know one thing. I know who can play point guard because I’ve played at the highest level.

“The last time I checked, Magic Johnson’s not living here. Gary Payton doesn’t live here. Nash doesn’t live here.

“I don’t think I’m an MMA expert. So, there’s things that I’m not an expert at but I do know one thing: how to play that position. Who can play it. And who’s going to play it.

“I’ve played that at the highest level and coached at the highest level, so the turnovers do not bother me.”

— Nov. 5, 2015

When it comes to getting punched by Carlos Condit and committing turnovers, I say leave it to the experts.

• • •

“He just grabbed me. … I’ve coached here for three years and won a lot of games, I think I know what I can do and what I can’t do.”

— Nov. 15, explaining why he shoved assistant Chris Harriman after Harriman tried to calm him during the Aggies game in Las Cruces.

Well, there were a lot of wins that first year, but I guess that’s not really the point here.

• • •

“I need to apologize for shoving my assistant, which we didn’t think was that big of a deal.”

— Nov. 17

No need to apologize. Unless, of course, someone is making you. Someone who is paying you a million bucks a year.

• • •

“We’ve just got too many weapons. We can score the ball and we can do some things we haven’t been able to do in a long time.”

— Nov. 18, after a 75-71 win over Loyola-Chicago.

Look out, here come the Lobos.

• • •

“I think we’re pretty close to being a lot better team than we’ve been in a long time.”

— Nov. 23, two days after a 90-82 loss at Southern Cal.

The Trojans beat Alford three times, so they must be good.

• • •

“We have a lot of guys who want to try to be leaders that I would not follow.”

— Dec. 28, after the Lobos go 0-for-3 in Hawaii.

Uh, OK, a little hiccup.

• • •

“You don’t become the leader because you score all the points. That’s what everybody thinks. That’s not the way it works.”

— Feb. 1, 2016, talking about Elijah Brown.

And this was on the day Brown had won his third conference player of the week award. Who nominates these guys anyway? Oh, it’s the schools.

• • •

“That call could cost me a conference championship.”

— Feb. 6, to ESPN’s Andy Katz, after UNM’s OT loss at San Diego State, which turned on an out-of-bounds call the league later said the refs muffed.

Cost you? What about the program? Still, he does get a $20,000 bonus for a league title, so I kinda get it.

• • •

“It’s not fair that you get threats and you get death threats.”

— Feb. 11, talking about his son, Cullen.

In the late 1980s, a young Lobo got a letter threatening him with death and filled with racial filth. The UNM staff kept subsequent letters from him and informed the police. If it comes up again, that’s probably the way to go.

• • •

“I can’t coach effort. You don’t coach effort. I don’t think there’s any coach in America that coaches effort.”

— Feb. 23, after a loss at Colorado State.

John Wooden coached this: “Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best of which you are capable.”

• • •

“You’ve got to consider a lot of their points were at the end when I put my senior (walk-ons) in,”

— March 1, after a loss to San Diego State.

Walk-ons Michael Nesbitt and Connor Joy entered with 1:34 left and UNM losing 78-54. Final score: 83-56.

Later, Neal said he was baited into the quote by the media even though the reporter was just beginning to form his question when the coach interrupted. Dang, that’s an impressive media mind trick. I could have used that when I was covering Dave Bliss.

• • •

“A road win against a top-five team in the league? You can’t ask for nothing better than that.”

— March 5, after UNM held on for a 71-66 win at Nevada, which was missing its best player.

Seems like Alford set the bar higher than that, but it’s been a while, so maybe I forget.

Anyway, the ultimate evaluators will be the fans, who have shown up for 50 years. But at what level will they return?

These are the folks who grew impatient with Gary Colson. They turned their backs on Ritchie McKay. Bliss and Alford, who filled them with sugar plum visions of Sweet Sixteen appearances, could not quench their thirst. Even Bob King, the man who built the place most of us still call the Pit, suffered his critics.

So what chance does a humbled, mild-mannered, first-time head coach such as Craig Neal have?

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