New Mexico is hoping a change in leadership yields a change in postseason success

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All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here.

In 2012-13, the New Mexico Lobos put together one of the best seasons in the history of the program, winning 29 games and earning both the Mountain West regular season and tournament titles. The Lobos won the regular season crown by a full two games, going 13-3 in conference play after not receiving a single first-place vote in the preseason poll, a fact made all the more impressive when you consider the MWC was the toughest, most balanced league in the country. Point guard Kendall Williams won Mountain West Player of the Year honors.

But the season ended on a sour note for the Lobos as they were knocked off by Harvard in the NCAA tournament Round of 64.

Just over a week after the defeat Steve Alford accepted the head coaching position at UCLA, leaving many wondering who UNM vice president for athletics Paul Krebs would hire to lead the program. Much to the pleasure of many involved Krebs didn’t have to go far to find his replacement, promoting associate head coach Craig Neal. Neal spent the prior six seasons on Alford’s staff, recruiting many of the players on the roster and being a valuable voice in the Xs-and-Os department. While there are some differences, the hiring of Neal has given the program continuity when upheaval wasn’t needed.

With four starters, including Williams and center Alex Kirk, back for another run, the hope in Albuquerque is that the Lobos will not only remain atop the Mountain West but also enjoy greater success in the NCAA tournament.

“It was a very smooth transition to Coach Neal because he’s been drawing up our plays since I’ve been here, and he’s been an integral part of what we’ve been doing,” Williams said of Neal in an interview with NBC Sports. “He’s taken on more of an executive position in a sense, but in my eyes it’s been really smooth and a lot of the guys feel the same way.”

(CLICK HERE to read NBCSports.com’s Mountain West Preview)

Neal’s move to the head coaching position is one of two major changes New Mexico will have to address as they begin the 2013-14 season, with the other being the departure of guard Tony Snell. After posting averages of 12.5 points, 2.9 assists and 2.6 rebounds, the junior entered the 2013 NBA Draft, where he was a first round selection of the Chicago Bulls. With Snell off to the NBA, the task of accounting for the production lost likely falls upon the shoulders of juniors Hugh Greenwood and Deshawn Delaney. In the case of Delaney, he’s continued to show progress after having to sit out the team’s summer trip to Australia in order to attend summer school.

“He had to stay in summer school so he wasn’t able to go on our trip, which hindered him some,” Neal told NBC Sports. “He’s really starting to pick things up. He was a little behind the ‘8-ball’ because he didn’t get those ten [pre-trip] practices, but he’s done very well. He’s talented, can score and he’s just a great, great kid.”

Delaney was a two-time junior college All-American, averaging 17.1 points and 8.6 rebounds per game during his time at Vincennes JC in Indiana, and the feeling is that he has the talent and athleticism needed to make an immediate impact. As for Greenwood he’s been more of a glue guy for the Lobos, and with an improved perimeter shot he’ll look to increase his production (7.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 2.4 apg) from a season ago. Also factoring into the equation are newcomers like freshman Cullen Neal, the coach’s son who was originally a Saint Mary’s signee before the coaching change at New Mexico.

But ultimately, how productive the backcourt is will fall upon the shoulders of the reigning Mountain West Player of the Year.

“I always work on my body and try to get stronger and more athletic, and I feel really good about where I am [individually] going into the season,” said Williams. “Also improving my leadership skills because we have some new guys and underclassmen to go along with the guys who returned. It was a matter of keeping everyone together and using my experiences to remain positive and lead a really talented group that’s expected to do a lot of things.”

For the season, Williams averaged 13.3 points, 4.9 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game. But while his individual numbers may not have been on the level of those posted by the likes of SDSU’s Jamaal Franklin and Air Force’s Michael Lyons, Williams’ impact on the Lobos exceeded what can be seen in the box score. If New Mexico is to remain atop the Mountain West that will once again need to be the case, with both player and coach also pointing to consistency as a key for the Lobos in 2013-14.

CLICK HERE to read through the rest of NBCSports.com’s feature stories

It doesn’t hurt to have a second conference Player of the Year candidate on the roster either, as 7-footer Alex Kirk is back for his junior campaign. After redshirting in 2011-12 due to a back injury Kirk hit the ground running, averaging 12.1 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per contest with nine double-doubles. Now another year removed from the herniated disk that required surgery and once again joined in the front court by the improving Cameron Bairstow (9.7 ppg, 5.9 rpg), Kirk is expected to cement his status as one of the top big men in the Mountain West.

“Alex has to turn into a dominant low-post player as far as I’m concerned,” said Neal. “Getting space offensively where he can catch it on the block and make teams play him and kick it out for shots, and be able to work with his left hand a little bit more. He really worked on that last year and it got to the point where he could go either way, and that’s tough to guard.”

“He’s also shooting the ball well,” continued Neal. “The one thing I’ve really been working on with Alex is agility and moving when he doesn’t have the ball offensively and defensively, because he’s a really good defensive player who has great timing.”

But regardless of what honors teams pick up in league play, the ultimate judge in the eyes of many is what happens in the NCAA tournament. In 13 NCAA tournament appearances, New Mexico has won multiple games just once — that was back in 1974 — so it goes without saying that there’s a strong desire to buck the program’s postseason reputation.

The 2013-14 season represents a new era in New Mexico basketball, and while the comfort level remains the same under Craig Neal the hope is that these Lobos will be able to go where they’ve been unable to in recent years.

Bluiett back to Xavier for senior season

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Xavier lost one significant piece to the professional ranks this spring, but will return another.

Trevon Bluiett, the team’s leading scorer last year, announced via social media that he will be back to play his senior season with the Musketeers.

Chris Mack will return the bulk of a roster that struggled February only to make a run to the Elite Eight, but getting Bluiett for a final season makes the Musketeers especially dangerous. The 6-foot-6 Bluiett scored a team-high 18.5 points per game last year while also putting up 5.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists per night. He shot 37.1 percent from 3-point range, the second-best mark on the team. His return, even with point guard Edmond Sumner going pro amid his ACL tear recovery, makes Xavier one of the top teams in the Big East heading into the 2017-18 season.

Bluiett himself is enough to keep Xavier relevant in the league, but when he’s coupled with the likes of returners JP Macura, Sean O’Mara and Quentin Goodwin, plus a recruiting class featuring two four-star prospects, it’s not difficult to see a path for Mack’s group to a place where they can compete with the likes of Villanova and Seton Hall atop the league.

Welsh and Holiday returning to UCLA

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UCLA sustained some major, though expected, attrition from its roster this spring. On Tuesday, the Bruins announced a pair of significant contributors that will be back.

Thomas Welsh and Aaron Holiday will both return next season to the UCLA program, according to the school.

Welsh, a 7-foot center, averaged 10.8 points and 8.7 rebounds as a senior last year for the Bruins. He shot 58.5 percent from the floor and blocked 1.2 shots per game, and decided to declare for the NBA Draft without an agent before ultimately deciding to return to Westwood.

“Thomas has worked hard all spring,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said in a statement. “We supported him testing the NBA waters and are excited to have him returning for his senior year. He simply continues to develop each and every season.

“Thomas will be one of the top centers in college basketball next year and, undoubtedly, has a great chance to be a first-round pick in next season’s draft.”

The 6-foot-1 Holiday averaged 12.3 points and 4.4 assists last season while sharing a backcourt with Lonzo Ball, whose departure, along with those of TJ Leaf, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton will leave UCLA with a very different look next season. The positive results, however, may not fluctuate too significantly with Welsh and Holiday coming back to play alongside two five-star recruits, Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands, as well as Lonzo’s younger brother LiAngelo.

West Virginia’s Macon forgoing final year

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West Virginia’s attempt to dethrone Kansas atop the Big 12 took a bit of a hit Tuesday.

Elijah Macon, a 6-foot-9 forward, announced his decision to forego a fifth year in Morgantown in order to pursue a professional career.

“First things first I would like to say thank you Bob Huggins and Erik Martin for believing in a young 15-year-old boy growing up from the Southside of Columbus, OH losing my mother and still having you guys push me to be the man I have become,” Macon said according to the school. “I can do nothing but thank you for all you and Mountaineer Nation (have) done for me. Unfortunately, I will not be returning for my senior season at WVU and instead sign with a(n) agent and play professional basketball. Thank you guys for all the love and support!”

Macon wasn’t a major contributor for the Mountaineers last season, averaging 6.3 points and 4.2 rebounds in 16 minutes per game, but he was an experienced and tough player who was well-versed in Huggins’ style and demands. Given the pace that the newly-fashioned Press Virginia plays at, depth is also paramount for them as a program.

Macon’s departure, though, may have been expected or at least partly anticipated by West Virginia. The Mountaineers signed five players in its most recent recruiting class, putting them one over their allotment of 13, so something had to give. West VIrginia will stay have interior depth, anchored by junior Esa Ahmad, so the loss of Macon is one they likely can weather, even if it may take some time to acclimate the newcomers.

“Elijah is in the process of completing classes during this summer school period that ends June 2 and will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in August,” Huggins said in a statement released by the school. “I respect his decision to become a professional basketball player and to go make money to support his family. He had a great four years with us, and we wish him nothing but the best.”

Key returning to Alabama for sophomore season

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Alabama’s top scorer is returning to school.

Braxton Key has withdrawn his name from the NBA draft and will be back with the Tide for his sophomore season, the school announced Tuesday.

“I spoke to coach Avery (Johnson) just over a week ago and informed him of my decision to withdraw my name from the NBA Draft and return to the University of Alabama for my sophomore season,” Key said in a statement. “I made that official when I sent my paperwork to the NBA league office Monday morning. I want to express my appreciation to my teammates, Coach Johnson and the entire coaching staff for giving me their full support while I went through this process.

“I am excited for the future of the Alabama basketball program and looking forward to getting to work as we prepare for next season. Roll Tide and Buckle Up!”

The 6-foot-8 forward averaged 12 points and 5.7 rebounds per game while shooting 43.3 percent from the field as a freshman. He gives Alabama four returning starts to pair with one of the country’s highest-regarded recruiting classes, headlined by five-star guard Collin Sexton. The Tide will also have an eligible Daniel Giddens, who previously transferred in from Ohio State.

Key didn’t seem likely to stay in the NBA draft, especially after he wasn’t invited to the combine, but his ultimate decision is a huge one for Avery Johnson as he looks to break through in his third season in Tuscaloosa with his first NCAA tournament appearance. 

Report: Justin Jackson to return to Maryland

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Maryland forward Justin Jackson is expected to return to school for his sophomore season, according to a report from FanRag Sports.

Jackson is an intriguing talent, a 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-3 wingspan that shoots 44 percent from three. But he’s also still developing his offensive game and consistency on the defensive end of the floor, which is why he was projected as a second round pick in this year’s draft.

With Jackson back in the fold, Maryland is a borderline top 25 team. They lost Melo Trimble to the professional ranks, but that’s something that Mark Turgeon has prepared for. With a sophomore class that also includes highly-regarded point guard Anthony Cowan and sharp-shooter Kevin Huerter, the Terps have a promising season ahead of them.