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Redshirt sophomore guard Elijah Brown drives to the net Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016 at WisePies Arena. The Lobos will play Fresno State this Saturday at WisePies Arena at 8 p.m..

Redshirt sophomore guard Elijah Brown drives to the net Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016 at WisePies Arena. The Lobos will play Fresno State this Saturday at WisePies Arena at 8 p.m..

Men's Basketball: Fan expectations not too high, Neal said

It isn’t all “rainbows and unicorns,” Craig Neal said. He knew these Lobos would have ups and downs this season.

But when you’re the head coach of a program that draws as much local attention as New Mexico does, expectations come with the territory.

Ahead of Saturday’s showdown with Fresno State, the UNM head coach said he understands that. When more fan criticism rolled in after the two most recent road losses – at Air Force last Saturday and at Colorado State on Tuesday – Neal denounced the idea that spectator expectations are excessive.

He pointed to the seven Mountain West regular-season and tournament championship titles won here since 2009, when he was either an assistant coach under Steve Alford or with himself in charge. It shows the model of excellence fans now expect from the team, he said, since those are the same goals he has for the Lobos as a program.

“Once you succeed and do things that we've done here, then that's what it is and that's just the way it is,” he said. “You have to adapt and go with it.”

Regarding his own expectations for this year’s group, Neal said the Lobos have done everything he’s asked them to do.

Yet New Mexico (16-12, 9-6 MW) still struggled to find defensive effort on this past road trip. The Lobos gave up a 49-point second half to Air Force then another 47-point game to CSU in the latter 20 minutes.

Neal said he won’t make any changes to his starting lineup for Fresno State. He had hinted in his postgame radio interview that he might make a change there, but he said Thursday the starting five will remain intact.

That said, Neal added that if some players don’t do what is asked of them to do – largely on the defensive end, he won’t have any reservations about putting others into the game.

“I don't know of any of my guys who, when we get scored on, they get pissed off,” he said. “That's something they've got to get better at and they've got to get stops.”

Neal hasn’t been the first head coach to say effort cannot be coached, which he told radio announcer Robert Portnoy at Colorado State on Tuesday. Even fellow Mountain West contender San Diego State’s coach Steve Fisher, gave similar comments.

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But how do you address that? The solution, Neal said Thursday, is to try to motivate them.

He acknowledged that on the road trip, the Lobos probably had too much time on their hands and sat around too much as opposed to the daily schedule they are used to back home. As a result, they became somewhat lax when game time rolled around. 

“That's something we've got to look at, especially with a young team,” he said. “We've probably made that mistake twice, but I'm going to try to motivate them and get them to play as hard as they can.”

For the third time UNM will face an opponent with a second-place spot on the line. Two wins over Boise State earlier this season puts UNM with at least a share of the runner-up spot in the league standings.

The two losses dropped New Mexico to third place, tied with Boise State. As Fresno State currently carries a half-game lead on the Lobos, a win Saturday would put both teams in the No. 2 spot.

Plus, the Lobos would hold the tiebreaker over Fresno State with UNM’s 77-62 win over the Bulldogs on Jan. 2. Since that game, they’ve won nine games with three straight against Wyoming, Utah State and Air Force.

“It'll be good to win. Put us right back tied for second place,” Neal said. “I think our guys are optimistic. I'm optimistic. Three games left and anything's possible. I think that's the way we're looking at it.”

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

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