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Redshirt sophomore guard Cullen Neal falls for the ball against two Rice players at WisePies Arena Dec. 19. The Lobos lost three out of three games in the Hawaiin Airlines Diamond Head Classic and will play Nevada this Wednesday at 7 p.m..
Redshirt sophomore guard Cullen Neal falls for the ball against two Rice players at WisePies Arena Dec. 19. The Lobos lost three out of three games in the Hawaiin Airlines Diamond Head Classic and will play Nevada this Wednesday at 7 p.m..

Men's basketball: Young Lobos enter MW play after four straight losses

New Mexico head coach Craig Neal is quick to remind everybody the youth on this year’s Lobos squad, even calling it the youngest in nine years.

In every game this year, the Lobos started three sophomores – two of them redshirts – and two juniors. The bench doesn’t get much older with only one senior who sees any meaningful minutes in games, and he joined the team last year as a preferred walk-on transfer.

When considering that youth, Neal said he knew adversity would come at some point in the season. However, he didn’t see it the way it came: an unusual loss to Rice then to three straight at the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic.

“Physically, do they look the part? Yeah. Physically they look the part,” Neal said Monday after the team returned from Hawaii the day before. “Physically, have we won some games? Yeah. Physically, did we know we were going to have some adversity? Yeah. Did we think it was going to be four in row? No.”

If UNM (7-5) wants to bounce back, it’ll have to do so on the night Mountain West play begins. The Lobos host Nevada Wednesday night at WisePies Arena for a 7 p.m. tipoff.

Regarding the Wolf Pack, Neal referred to Marqueze Coleman as a good guard who will be involved quite a bit, and guard D.J. Fenner as a strong player on the perimeter. Neal expects A.J. West’s departure to be a challenge for Nevada since he was among the nation’s best in rebounding last season, and Neal said guard Lindsey Drew and forward Oliver are two good freshmen.

“They've got a nice team,” Neal said. “They play hard and it'll be a great challenge for us.”

But outside of Coleman’s penetration/transition ability and Nevada’s aims to clog UNM passing lanes, Monday’s press conference focused heavily on last week’s four losses and the Lobos’ current state.

The team hasn’t played since Christmas Day and took the practice floor Monday after returning leading up to the MW showdown. Neal said before practice he wasn’t sure yet if he will make any changes the starting lineup, with questions arising after guard Cullen Neal sat the second half against Washington State.

Craig Neal wasn’t surprised the possibility existed that the Lobos could have lost three in Hawaii considering a field featuring Oklahoma, Brigham, Auburn and Northern Iowa among others. The team found itself in a slump after ill-fated timeout in the Rice game, Neal said, and didn’t recover.

Neal was taken off guard, he said, by how the loss to Auburn in the first round affected the rest of the tournament. He said he thought the Lobos played with energy and effort in the 83-78 setback to the SEC’s Tigers, a game where UNM couldn’t make plays down the stretch.

The defense in particular struggled. In those four losses to Rice, Auburn, BYU and Washington State, UNM surrendered 82 points or more. Neal didn’t know to pinpoint that to a lack of confidence among his players, but he did doubt that as a possibility.

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Much like he’s said in other meetings with the media, Neal’s team simply must get better. It needs consistency, he said.

“We've going to have to continue to work on some things that we thought we were there and we weren’t,” he said. “We've got to continue to do that and get better. It's like I said it's a young group and they're either going to bounce back.”

To help with the young roster, Neal said he’s tried to handle things by staying positive. The Lobos haven’t had as long of practices as they’ve run in past years to prevent grinding them to the point of breaking down. But that’s a double-edged sword, Neal said, when mental fatigue enters the picture.

Coaches have to be psychologists in a sense, he said.

“I wish I had taken it in college,” Neal said. “You kind of have to be, but I like my team. I still like my team and I think we have a chance to be really, really good, but I didn't know when it was going to come but it came sooner than later.”

Also, a leader has not emerged on the roster. They’re too young a team to have a leader at this point, Neal said. That’s a role the coach will take on himself, an approach he said has worked for past teams.

“That's my job,” he said. “I'm going to have to lead them because right now I let them try to do it their way and I was pretty happy with them, and now with the slippage I'm going to have to lead them.”

J.R. Oppenheim is the managing editor for the Daily Lobo. He primarily covers men’s basketball and women’s soccer. Contact him at or on Twitter @JROppenheim.

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