- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 4, 2015

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - After three consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances and Mountain West championships, a depleted New Mexico had trouble replacing departed and injured players last season, falling below .500.

But Lobos coach Craig Neal is convinced that he now has a better roster that is more capable of playing through any hiccups that might arise.

“I think we’re able to play,” he said. “We’ve got depth.”

New Mexico was never quite able to replace post Alex Kirk, who left with a year of eligibility remaining to go pro, and couldn’t overcome the early-season injury to leading returning scorer Cullen Neal, the coach’s son.

Throw in a few more banged up bodies throughout the year and the Lobos struggled to their worst season (15-16, 7-11 Mountain West) since Craig Neal joined the program in 2007 as an assistant.

Some things to consider about the Lobos as they try to regroup for another run at the postseason:

HIGH-ANKLE DRAIN: Versatile sophomore guard Cullen Neal went down with an ankle injury in the third game of the season and the Lobos offense never recovered. But coach Neal is convinced that his son is healthy and ready to be a sparkplug for the offense. “I think he’s feeling really good,” he said. “We’ve been full bore with him lately. And when we have some adversity, he’s going to be the guy to get them all together. I think one thing we can do with Cullen is we’re going to have play him off the ball when we’re struggling to score.”

INSTANT OFFENSE: The shorter shot clock may actually play into the Lobos’ playbook as New Mexico plans to push the ball up court as much as possible. “Now we’re going to try speed that up and play a lot faster,” Neal said. “We’re doing a lot of full-court stuff with less time on the clock to see if we can get good shots. We’ve got lot of guys who can shoot. I don’t think we have a go-to shooter. We have a number of guys that can make shots.” In addition to Cullen Neal, freshmen Anthony Mathis and Jordan Hunter and Butler transfer Elijah Brown all expected to be able to pull up for shots.

YOUTH WILL BE SERVED: The Lobos have four freshmen and the coach said he not only expects them to play, but to be significant contributors. Guards Mathis and Hunter will be joined by bigs Dane Kuiper (6-7) and Nikola Scekic (7-1). “I think Anthony can really shoot the ball,” Neal said. “I think Dane is probably the most solid as far as not turning it over and making the right play and being the glue guy and doing the little things. Jordan is going to be good. He just has a lot to learn. Playing that position (point guard) is not easy. He’s done a good job, it’s just a lot to learn. And big Nic, he hasn’t played a lot. His whole thing is going to be conditioning, pace of play. Moving his feet and getting in better shape, which he has worked really hard to do.”

FRONT COURT JAMS: Starting forward Devon Williams (6-8) returns after a learning experience as a redshirt sophomore seeing significant minutes. He will be expected to aggressively go to the basket to score (6.7 points) and for boards (3.4). Junior post Obij Aget (7-1, 220) has been slowly beefing up his frame so he can absorb a pounding underneath. He’s got the mobility and the size to be a strong shot-blocker. Scekic should add a wide body to the mix, but his court experience remains limited. Sam Longwood (6-7) is a guard/forward who saw a lot of minutes as a freshman and can fill in as needed. And sophomore Joe Furstinger (6-9) has put in a lot of work outside of practice to improve his game.

TRANSFER TRIALS: Sophomore Brown will be expected to step right into the lineup and provide scoring, defense and leadership, coach Neal said. He averaged 6.8 points as a freshman. Tim Williams (6-8) a junior transfer from Samford, comes off an All-Southern Conference performance as a sophomore and was conference freshman of the year. He will push for a starter’s role and should get plenty of playing time underneath after sitting out a season. Michael Newbitt (6-7) joins the Lobos for his final season after graduating from D-II Missouri A&T;, where he showed 3-point shooting prowess.



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