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The Lobo bench erupts in celebration as a shot was made against Boise State at WisePies Arena. Head coach Craig Neal held his end-of-season press conference this week, saying his young team gained valuable experience this season.

The Lobo bench erupts in celebration as a shot was made against Boise State at WisePies Arena. Head coach Craig Neal held his end-of-season press conference this week, saying his young team gained valuable experience this season.

Men's Basketball: Lobos grew during up-and-down season, Neal says

The youth and inexperience on this year’s New Mexico men’s basketball team became a consistent narrative throughout the season. Almost every time head coach Craig Neal met with the media, he made mention to it.

It’s a young team, he would say. They were working to try to improve and get better.

That showed throughout the up-and-down campaign, one where the Lobos went 17-15 and finished fourth in the Mountain West standings. Though they finished above their projected sixth-place finish, the team once again hit a February slump and bowed out early from the conference tournament.

Moving forward, Neal said, the Lobos won’t be able to rely on the youth theme next year. Simply put, he said, they can’t.

“We have to get better, and I know that and I own that and we will continue to do that,” Neal said at his end-of-season press conference Tuesday morning. “They are only going to learn from what happened this year, and that’s what I’m counting on.”

The Lobos made strides offensively from the 2014-15 season, a need that Neal said he knew they had to address. UNM improved its scoring production from 62 points per game to 76 a game, fourth best in the Mountain West. They also led the league in free-throw percentage.

Yet New Mexico’s defense struggled, especially late in the season when the Lobos went 7-3 in its final 10 games. The team ranked eighth among MW teams in team defense at 73.4 points a game.

Neal said he does feel the team grew considerably from the beginning, when it had the youngest starting lineup of any team in the conference. Much of that comes from the adversity the team faced, including a stunning overtime loss at San Diego State caused by an incorrect call by officials.

Being a group that hadn’t played together before, the Lobos never faced those challenges as a unit. It should be something they grow from, Neal said.

Aside from Cullen Neal, who plans to transfer, all the key role players are expected to return. Top scorer Elijah Brown will test the NBA waters but remains eligible so long as he withdraws his name 10 days after the combine. He and Tim Williams

Tuesday’s media event did not include players, but Neal’s coaching staff attended. The past few years saw Neal’s assistants moving on to other opportunities, but the head coach said Chris Harriman, Alan Huss and Terrence Rencher will be back next season.

Craig Neal on his future

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Despite consecutive seasons with records hovering around .500, Neal said he expects to remain the Lobos’ head man through the remainder of his contract and beyond. His current deal with New Mexico runs through 2020.

He rejected the notion next year will be a make-or-break season.

Neal’s name has also popped up for the coaching position at Georgia Tech, where he played in the mid-1980s. He stressed he is the coach of New Mexico and expressed how happy he is to be in his position. He said he’s not particularly excited with how this season ended from a win-loss perspective, but he remains optimistic about the process.

Some criticism against the coach stems from too frequently calling out his own players and using the team’s youth as an excuse. On that first point, Neal said the struggles are on him to correct and he never felt he called any player out by name.

Regarding the youth, Neal said he didn’t intend for that to be an excuse. Rather, he said, it was a fact.

“I think it’s a fact when you’re the youngest starting five in our conference,” he said. “All the teams, if you look at them, are veteran-laden. It is what it is. That’s just what we had.”

Cullen Neal’s decision to leave

The redshirt sophomore point guard will finish his bachelor’s degree in communications this semester. As a result, he will not lose any eligibility when he transfers to play for another college and pursue a master’s degree.

Some point to the criticism Cullen Neal received as the reason why he will depart the program, but Craig Neal said his son seeks new opportunities.

“I can’t be more proud than that, of what he’s done here,” Craig Neal said. “He scored 674 points, which is really good for a two-year player, and almost 200 assists. I’m just proud of him and I have to wish him well, and now I’m going forward with my team.”

The head coach said he has no resentment for the way some fans treated Cullen Neal. He said he will continue to focus on his team.

“We love the community,” Craig Neal said. “We know what it’s about, and I’m the coach here and I’m the coach of New Mexico and I’m not looking to coach anywhere else.”

On Wednesday, J.R. Oppenheim ended his tenure as the assistant sports editor for the Daily Lobo. He primarily covered men’s basketball and women’s soccer. He may be contacted directly on Twitter @JROppenheim. Contact the Daily Lobo sports desk at

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