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Last year, the New Mexico Lobos swept the regular season and conference tournament championships in the MWC, which led all conferences in RPI. But, it all came crashing to a halt when the Lobos lost in the NCAA Tournament Round of 64 to Harvard.
There are two ways to look at the way New Mexico's NCAA Tournament and offseason played out. The pessimistic view is that they lost to a double-digit seed for the second time in the school's past three tournaments and are now without their former coach Steve Alford (I briefly discussed his move to UCLA here) and guard Tony Snell, who left a year early for the NBA.
While the Lobos return reigning conference player of the year Kendall Williams, I'd argue Snell was more important to their team. He was the team's second-leading scorer (12.5 PPG), as well as their best three-point shooter and wing defender.
The optimistic view for this team is that they had the misfortune of running into a Crimson team that happened to shoot 52 percent from the field that day, an aberration for a Lobos defense that held opponents to 39 percent shooting on the year. They also have about as much continuity you could ask for from a team that is changing coaches. Alford's replacement is former assistant Craig Neal, who has been with the program since 2007, and Snell's replacement is Neal's son, Cullen.
Other than that, everything else should be about the same for this squad. I personally feel a bit uneasy when a team's leading scorer is also its primary ball-handler, as is the case with New Mexico and Williams. But that hasn't been a problem so far, and Williams could easily be the conference's best player again. Seven-footer Alex Kirk could put himself into the conversation as well, and he'll team up with 6'9" forward Cameron Bairstow to form the conference's best inside pair.
The Loboso have about as much continuity you could ask for from a team that is changing coaches.
The big question will be to what extent Cullen Neal can replace Snell. Fortunately, he's going to have some help. New Mexico's other wing, Hugh Greenwood, will have to score more than he did last year (7 PPG) to help Neal. But he can make up for it in other ways; his five rebounds per game are more than the average 6'3" guard can give you.
Off the bench, the Lobos bring in two transfers: former Kansas Jayhawk Merv Lindsay and JuCo transfer Deshawn Delaney. Both will have a chance to contribute on the wing as well.
I still expect the end product to be similar for the Lobos. They will play tough defense. They will be extremely tough to beat at The Pit, where they were undefeated in conference play last year, losing only once all season (to Nate Wolters and South Dakota State). And, they will be in a stout Mountain West Conference.
The hope, of course, is that after competing for the MWC crown, New Mexico can actually dance long into March. The program has never made it to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. Doing so would make a huge statement, whether it comes against a double-digit seed like Harvard or one of the sport's blue-bloods. If the Lobos want to sit at the big boy table of college basketball, that's what they are going to have to do.