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

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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."

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