What's buzzing:

First-year coach has No. 21 Lobos on cusp of title

AP - Sports
First-year coach has No. 21 Lobos on cusp of title

View photo

New Mexico's coach Craig Neal shouts instructions to players during the first half of an NCAA college …

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) -- In his first season as a head coach, New Mexico's Craig Neal has already faced situations that many veteran coaches would find challenging.

Yet through the extremely short learning period that he was allowed, Neal has thrived to the point where he has the No. 21 Lobos one win from a third straight Mountain West championship.

That win won't be an easy one as New Mexico (24-5) travels Saturday to No. 10 San Diego State (26-3), which is tied with the Lobos at the top of the conference with a 15-2 league mark.

Neal was no stranger to the program, having spent six years here under Steve Alford rebuilding it into a perennial NCAA tournament team before Alford left after last season for the top job at UCLA.

Neal inherited a team that returned four starters after earning a No. 3 seed last season before flaming out in its first game against 14th-seeded Harvard.

''I think the hardest thing to do is to play at the level we've played at with the expectations that were on this team,'' Neal said.

The trials began almost immediately as the Lobos took a summer exhibition tour of Australia.

Neal's son, Cullen, an incoming freshman who was expected to be a key contributor off the bench, suffered through appendicitis while on the trip, only to face a bout of mononucleosis shortly after practice started.

''It was a really tough situation and it makes you thankful for what you have,'' Craig Neal said. ''Taking over a new position and all that, there was a lot of pressure, trying to coach them and get them ready for the season. And then worried about your son who's in the hospital and a long way away so there was a lot of emotions, but I think it made us stronger. I think it made our team stronger.''

It might have made the team stronger, but it didn't do much for Neal's stress level.

''The biggest challenge is keeping them on track," he said. ''Going from the second chair to the first chair is a big challenge always. The biggest thing for me is you're not their uncle, you're their dad now and you're the final say. That was a difficult transition for all of us.''

Neal is far more outgoing and personable than his friend and mentor Alford, whom he replaced and whom he can remove from the school record book as the winningest first-year coach with one more victory. That sunnier disposition has shone through on the court, said team leader and reigning conference player of the year Kendall Williams.

''I think his personality shows through the team and he's allowing us to let us show our personalities,'' Williams said. ''Especially with this group of seniors and upperclassmen. I think that's really helped us get through the year because it's a game and it's a game we love to play and play with each other.''

Still, when the Lobos dropped an early-season game and fell from the national rankings until returning just recently, Neal had to endure some criticism, especially for his handling of his son's playing time.

''You have to understand that you have to play at a certain level and that's it,'' he said. ''But it's unique because I think it's the first time we've ever had a coach-son combo in Albuquerque. It's just different. There's a lot of expectations here but I've said it over and over, I wouldn't want to be any place other than this place because they care so much.''

New Mexico athletic director Paul Krebs, who made the decision to hire the unproven Neal, said his faith never wavered.

''I think he's done a tremendous job,'' Krebs said. ''I think Craig walked into a very challenging situation when you have a veteran team with high expectations entering into the year, preseason favorites, first-time head coach. I think the challenges of coaching your own son, all those dynamics, it made for what could be a considered a real challenge.''

It was a challenge that Neal said he had been well-prepared to accept, even if he did have to deal with some unexpected issues.

''Paperwork,'' Neal said with a smile. ''I kind of knew about it. Paperwork. Autographs. Stuff you have to get to that I really didn't see a lot of because I knew (Alford) was always doing it. I didn't understand the magnitude of it.''

View Comments (14)
  • Tennis-Nadal pulls through French Open first round

    PARIS, May 26 (Reuters) - Rafa Nadal received a decent workout from French teenager Quentin Halys as he began his quest for a 10th French Open title with a 6-3 6-3 6-4 first-round win on Tuesday. Nadal, seeded sixth after a mediocre start to the … More »

    Reuters - 3 minutes 32 seconds ago
  • Kvitova struggles to reach second round in Paris

    Kvitova struggles to reach second round in Paris

    By Julien Pretot PARIS (Reuters) - Czech fourth seed Petra Kvitova, not a natural mover on clay, dug deep to reach the French Open second round by laboring to a 6-4 3-6 6-4 win over New Zealand's Marina Erakovic on Tuesday. The double Wimbledon … More »

    Reuters - 6 minutes ago
  • Australian Bayliss appointed England head coach

    Australian Bayliss appointed England head coach

    By Pritha Sarkar LONDON (Reuters) - England turned to the old enemy in an attempt to restore national pride as Trevor Bayliss became the first Australian to be appointed head coach of the team on Tuesday. With an Ashes series against Australia … More »

    Reuters - 21 minutes ago
  • Factbox - New England head coach Bayliss

    Factbox on Trevor Bayliss, who became the first Australian to be appointed England national coach on Tuesday. Born: Dec. 21, 1962, Goulburn, Australia PLAYING CAREER A middle order batsman, he played 58 first-class matches for New South Wales, … More »

    Reuters - 22 minutes ago
  • Tennis-Kvitova struggles to reach second round in Paris

    (Writes through with quotes) By Julien Pretot PARIS, May 26 (Reuters) - Czech fourth seed Petra Kvitova, not a natural mover on clay, dug deep to reach the French Open second round by labouring to a 6-4 3-6 6-4 win over New Zealand's Marina … More »

    Reuters - 24 minutes ago