Stevens: Lobos Men's Basketball 2012-13 Season Review

April 15, 2013

New Mexico Lobos Men's Basketball 2012-13 Season Review

By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/

It was a highlight-reel season marked by two Mountain West championships, 29 wins, 14 non-Pit wins, an NCAA ride that ended in a hurtful shocker to Harvard - and two more shockers that hit after the Lobos turned in their jerseys.

On March 30, New Mexico held a news conference announcing that Steve Alford, arguably the most successful coach in men's basketball history, had backed out of his 10-year commitment to UNM to accept the head job at UCLA.

On April 9, UNM held a press conference to announce that junior Tony Snell, the Most Valuable Player of the 2013 Mountain West Tournament, would forfeit his senior season to enter the NBA draft.

Hurtful blows? Maybe. However, there was good news sandwiched between those two conferences as on April 2, UNM introduced Craig Neal as Alford's replacement.

It was a selection popular with fans and boosters and a huge surge of encouragement that not much would change in the UNM program. Neal had served six years as Alford's right hand man and has long been credited as a vital cog in any and all Lobo success.

"I guess there is more pressure on me now," said Neal in accepting The Pit's hot seat.

For sure, Neal knows how to get it done. He also is familiar with the fishbowl called New Mexico basketball. Neal was a part of the 2012-13 season that saw a New Mexico team picked to finish behind San Diego State and UNLV race to the MW regular-season and tournament titles.

There are two titles available in the Mountain West race for basketball glory. The scoreboard for 2013 read: Lobos 2, everybody else 0.

"I think after the first six games of the conference, our guys were like, `Hey, we're better than everybody else.'" said Neal. "Once they had that confidence, the momentum just kept rolling. I think once they believed they could win it, that it helped them play with focus and consistency.

"We thought we'd be good and we knew we could compete. But we didn't think we'd win the conference by two games. You just never know how a team will come together."

The Lobo team of 2012-13 came together in a special way.

The Lobos were picked to fall behind the SDSU Aztecs and the UNLV Runnin' Rebels for several reasons. First, the Aztecs and the Rebels were loaded with talent. Second, the Lobos were going into the 2012-13 season with a huge question mark in the paint. UNM had lost 6-foot-9 Drew Gordon and 6-8 A.J. Hardeman inside. This was a huge hole to fill.

The replacements - 7-foot Alex Kirk and 6-9 Cameron Bairstow - had talent and size. But they were unproven. Kirk had sat out the 2011-12 season after back surgery. Bairstow had been a role player inside behind Gordon and Hardeman.

"The inside game was definitely a question mark, but we had a lot of confidence in them," said Neal. "Their play propelled our team to a new level. Nobody in conference could match us big-big on the offensive end or defensively.

"That was a big change in our dynamics. Our confidence improved even more and the team took off from there."

Kirk ended the season averaging 12.1 points and 8.1 rebounds. He shot 49 percent from the floor. Bairstow added a 9.7 average and 5.9 boards. But this duo definitely was a Twin Tower attack averaging a combined 21.8 points and 14 boards per game. Bairstow shot .456 from the floor and the Towers had 84 blocked shots - 63 from Kirk.

"That's probably the best season we've ever had two big guys put together at the same time," said Neal of the past six seasons. "We expected good things from them, but they played at a high level and probably even higher than our expectations.

"And those two guys are coming back."

The Lobos lose key role players and top-notch subs in Jamal Fenton and Chad Adams and a front liner in Snell. But Kendall Williams, the Mountain West Player of the Year, returns with his 13.3 scoring average, which topped the UNM charts. Williams also led UNM in assists with a 4.9 average and was named to the USBWA All-District VIII Team and the All-MW First Team.

Bairstow made the All-Tournament team in Vegas and was All-MW honorable mention. Hugh Greenwood was All-MW honorable mention. Kirk was Second Team All-MW and placed on the All-MW Defensive Team. Snell was Third Team All-MW and MW Tournament MVP. Alford was the Mountain West and District VIII Coach of the Year.

Williams and Snell were named ESPN National Players of the Week.

The Lobos clinched a share of the 2013 MW title and cut downs nets in The Pit on March 2 after a 53-42 win over Wyoming, holding the Cowboys to 28.1 percent shooting. It was the fifth Mountain West title for Alford's UNM program. The game was a Pit finale for Fenton and Adams, the two winningest Lobos ever.

The Lobos won the league title outright the next week with a win at Nevada. This was not an easy title to win as the Mountain West was probably the toughest it had ever been from top to bottom and had four MW teams ranked during the conference run -- UNM, SDSU, UNLV and Colorado State.

It got even better for UNM. The Lobos entered the MW Tournament in Las Vegas as the No. 1 seed and rolled to the 2013 title in UNLV's house. New Mexico beat UNLV 63-56 in the title game. Snell iced tournament MVP honors with 21 points in the championship game.

Alex Kirk was a 7-foot reason for UNM's success in 2012-13

The Lobos' season was carved through focus, defense, consistency and talent, but also with the necessary road-warrior mentality. The three wins in Vegas pushed UNM to 14 wins off the Bob King Floor.

The Lobos went into their NCAA Selection Day party expecting a No. 2 or No. 3 seed and were handed a No. 3 seed, which tied the program's high set first in 1997 and again in 2010. The Lobos went into the NCAA Tournament looking for a program-record 15 wins outside The Pit, but were shocked in their first NCAA game by Harvard in that school's first ever NCAA win. Alford left UNM failing in six seasons to push UNM into a Sweet 16 game.

Kirk said in the loss to Harvard that the Lobos "didn't step up and make the stops," and "didn't come down and hit the big shots like we normally do."

The Lobos were in the national ranking 12 straight weeks heading into the NCAA Tournament and UNM ended the regular season ranked No. 10 in the final Associated Press Poll. New Mexico was ranked No. 19 in the USA Today Coaches Poll, which came out after the NCAA Tournament.

UNM was 4-1 against nationally ranked teams this past season beating No. 21 Connecticut, No. 8 Cincinnati, No. 19 UNLV and No. 21 Colorado State. Only one of those wins came in The Pit.

"We had a fantastic season. We just have to figure out that NCAA tournament," said Neal. "We have no excuses. We didn't play well. We have to figure out how to play better in the big tournament."

Neal takes over a program that has won back-to-back Mountain West titles for the regular season and in the MW Tournament. It is a program shouldering internal and external expectations.

"It's the kind of pressure that you like because it is pressure that you have created with success," said Neal. "We have academic goals that we plan to meet, but you also play and coach to win championships. There will be pressure again next year and that's fine.

"Our goal is to do it again."