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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Column: Questions to keep in mind as sports kick off

I’m not gonna lie: taking this Daily Lobo managing editor gig after having the state’s top sports beat – New Mexico men’s basketball – was a challenging choice for me. But you know what? I can’t completely separate myself from the sports coverage arena.

Although I won’t be a primary sports reporter anymore, I’m staying on board as a regular sports columnist here at the DL. My goal is to bring you a column at least every two weeks, but weekly when possible. I’ll give my thoughts across the UNM sports landscape, the Mountain West and college athletics in general. Pro stuff? You can get that elsewhere.

With that in mind, the best place to start is a quick discussion of the five most compelling storylines to follow this school year, at least according to me. Of course every team here on campus has things to follow in their own right, but five just sounds like a nice number for something like this.

Here we go.

How about that new-look men’s basketball team?

Yeah, I know. Basketball season is still months away, but this is New Mexico, after all. Basketball talk is evergreen.

It helps since it was my main beat for two years.

It was only a matter of time before head coach Craig Neal, now in his second year, would have a group of athletes recruited under his watch. It looks like that came sooner than some anticipated.

Last year’s triple-threat of Kendall Williams, Cameron Bairstow and Alex Kirk all graduated from UNM. That trio accounted for roughly 60 percent of the team’s output, leaving a hole to fill.

Guard Hugh Greenwood remains the only starter from the Steve Alford days, and guard Deshawn Delaney landed a starting role in Neal’s first year at the helm. Those two are the only seniors this year, and Delaney has only last season under his belt since he came in as a junior college transfer.

On top of that, the team had a number of players leave the team for other collegiate opportunities. That leaves guys like Cullen Neal (the coach’s son and last year’s fourth-leading scorer), Arthur Edwards, Obij Aget and a host of freshmen and junior-college transfers to fill the void.

Greenwood should remain consistent managing the offense and playing defense, and Delaney in the MW tourney showed flashes of what he could be. The others need to step up.

Will New Mexico football’s defense improve this year?

The Lobo offense found ways to chew up yards and find the end zone in Bob Davie’s first two years at the helm.

The defense, on the other hand? That’s a whole other story.

UNM seemed to give up as many points and yards defensively than they managed to rank up offensively. That led to scores like UNM 42, UTEP 35; UNLV 56, UNM 42; and Colorado State 66, UNM 42.

The worst: Fresno State scored 69 points against the Lobos.

That’s absolutely got to change, and everybody paying attention to this team knows it. Even if UNM can score 40 points again this season – and that would be great – it doesn’t mean much if the defense surrenders 50, 60 or more.

Davie made changes to his defensive coaching staff. He shifted Kevin Cosgrove to the defensive coordinator position, and brought in Barry Sacks to coach the defensive line and Charles McMillian for the defensive backs.

We’ll learn more after the season opener this week against UTEP and as the season progresses. But if this program wants to move forward, the defense must move out of the ranks of the bottom 100 nationally.

Is this the year Lobo volleyball catches Colorado State?

The Rams over the last few years established themselves as the team to beat in the Mountain West Conference. They’ve won the last five consecutive MW titles and were tabbed in the conference preseason poll to do so again.

The Lobos, on the other hand, have the preseason MW player of the year in Chantale Riddle, now a senior, and a middle blocker unit that has head coach Jeff Nelson excited.

On paper, UNM should be strong offensively at the net with outside hitters Riddle (468 kills in 2013), Julia Warren (222), and Cassie House (218) all returning. The Lobos also boast strong middle lockers in Skye Gullatt, Elsa Krieg, and transfer Simone Henderson, who shined in last Saturday’s exhibition.

The team did lose its libero from last year, Miquella Lovato. If that back row holds up, UNM could give Colorado State a run for its money. Yet, until UNM or someone else knock them off, Colorado State remains at the top of the Mountain West.

What does men’s soccer do for a C-USA encore?

Clearly UNM made the right decision when the men’s soccer team departed the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation for Conference USA.

Facing much tougher competition in C-USA, the Lobos benefited only from a boost in RPI that aided them in NCAA tournament play. Beyond that, facing fierce foes game-in and game-out caused Jeremy Fishbein’s group to stay on its game in every outing.

By the time the national tourney got under way, the squad was ready. UNM held their first three NCAA opponents scoreless and reached the College Cup semifinals for the second time in team history.

The Lobos bring back quite a bit of speed up front from the squad that scored 35 goals in 2014.

Although UNM had one win, one loss and one draw this exhibition season, Fishbein has built a program that generates national buzz in college soccer circles.

The nonconference is stacked with No. 13 Akron coming in for Friday’s opener and UCLA on the horizon, but there’s no reason to expect a letdown this year. The Lobos have grown into a fun watch. Let’s see if this squad can keep it up.

Let’s end this where we started: basketball.

Will Yvonne Sanchez have a winning women’s hoops team this year?

Sanchez is entering the fourth and final year of her current contract, but the team hasn’t kept pace with some of the successes seen by her predecessor Don Flanagan. She dealt with numerous player injuries in her first year and finished second in the conference tourney despite an 11-20 record and a seventh seed.

After a 17-14 season in Sanchez’s second year, the team regressed back to the 11-win mark.

Last year’s women’s basketball team had about as hard a time as anybody at UNM getting wins. The Lobos finished with just 11 wins, including six in the conference, and they lost eight of their last 10 games by six points or fewer. In several games UNM let leads slip away in the final moments.

Ouch.

Sanchez currently has a 39-53 coaching record at UNM. She’s got a roster of players all recruited by her now. Unless her team shows some measure of success, that seat could start getting a little warm.

That’s what I got for now. Things should get interesting as the season goes on. For you spring sports fans, there wasn’t much here. Don’t worry – we’ll get there.

J.R. Oppenheim is the managing editor for the Daily Lobo. He also writes sports column and manages the newspaper’s social media. Contact him at managingeditor@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @JROppenheim.