UNM men's basketball: Has Neal found his coaching identity? - Albuquerque Journal

UNM men’s basketball: Has Neal found his coaching identity?

JOHNSON Ed_2012Fire Craig Neal.

Wait … that was oh, so two weeks ago.

We’ve since entered the era of alternate facts. Whereas data once pointed to Neal being a lousy basketball coach, it now suggests he is a rising star. Get the guy a raise for gosh sakes.

The men’s basketball coach of the UNM Lobos is a curious cat.

One day he is gruff with assistants and players, finding ulterior motives in the most innocuous of news conference questions.

The next he appears chastened, apologetic.

The next, he looks the fun-loving, shaggy-haired, motorcycle-riding guy many Lobo fans gushed over when he became their coach.

The next, he seems sullen, a brooding man with the world on his shoulders.

And so it is with his team. Up, then down. Confident, then shell-shocked.

Lately, they are enjoying their time on the court. They are playing loose, but aggressive. Following the debacles against Nevada and UNLV, Neal reportedly told them to have fun.

If Neal cannot coach effort, perhaps he can coach fun.

Teams have a tendency to reflect the head coach.

The Steve Alford that Albuquerque came to know was an ardent, no-nonsense guy. His UNM teams played accordingly.

Norm Ellenberger had a certain flair and intensity. His Lobos stormed baseline to baseline in uniforms tinged with turquoise, blending passion with discipline.

When Dave Bliss (as was Alford, an apprentice of Bob Knight) took over from the California cool Gary Colson, the returning Lobos suffered culture shock. Bliss didn’t understand them; they thought he was a creature from another planet. A team talented enough to be an NCAA participant instead stumbled a couple of times too many and was relegated to the scourge of the NIT.

But what are we to make of Neal and his Lobos?

The recent four-game run of success suggests UNM is poised to be the best team in the mediocre Mountain West Conference – something some of us suspected before the season began. The Lobos have the blend of enough experience and talent to dispatch the rest of the league in anticipation of the MWC tournament. Who’s afraid of San Diego State anymore? Nevada? The Lobos had them whupped before sliding into a self-induced coma.

And yet, who didn’t cringe when Utah State crawled within six points of UNM with a buck and a half to play the other night? The Lobos, that’s who. But was it because of Neal or despite him?

For nine years Neal served dutifully as Alford’s assistant. Before that, he was employed by the great Lenny Wilkens with the Toronto Raptors. He was a good college guard and had his couple of cups of coffee as a player in the NBA – something he likes to remind people of when he ventures into trash-talk mode.

But none of those experiences translates exactly into sitting on the throne Bob King first occupied.

Knowing basketball is not always the same as imparting its wisdom on others. Then again, he is diagramming basketball plays and not differential equations.

Today Neal is preparing his Lobos for a trek to Nevada – the land of sand, snow and sage brush, where gold is mined and savings are lost. But what will his preparations yield?

Is it possible that Neal has found his identity as a head coach? Is it possible that it occurred just as he was being written off amid rumors that Paul Krebs was doing his due diligence and considering possible heirs to Bob King?

We can only hope that the identity will spring from fun Craig and not brooding Noodles. But whatever works.

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