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.

Chimezie Metu cleared to play by USC

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USC has cleared junior forward Chimezie Metu as he’ll be allowed to play on Saturday against Utah, the school announced.

The 6-foot-11 Metu is the leading scorer and rebounder for the Trojans this season as he was one of the players named in the Friday reports that linked him to NBA agent Andy Miller and Christian Dawkins.

The Trojans are the latest school to allow their player to play after the reports as they follow schools like Duke and Kentucky, as they also did the same with allowing Wendell Carter Jr. and Kevin Knox Jr. to play.

It’s also noted in the release that USC is reviewing Bennie Boatwright’s eligibility as well even though he’s out for the season with a knee injury.

On Friday, Yahoo Sports reported a wide-scale payment operation from Miller and Dawkins in order to recruit players for Miller’s agency. The records allege that Bennie Boatwright Sr. received about $2,000. The records also allege that Metu or his advisor, Johnnie Parker, also got $2,000.

Although the allegations look serious, Dawkins has also proven to be untrustworthy in many instances and it’s hard to tell what might be real and what might be a cover for another expense. It’s hard to prove a lot of these things presented in a business expenses spreadsheet. USC is backing Metu by saying he never received anything that would harm his eligibility as they try to make a final push at Arizona before the postseason.

Bubble Banter: There will be some NCAA tournament bids determined today

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As we will do every day throughout the rest of the season, here is a look at how college basketball’s bubble teams fared on Saturday.

It’s worth reminding you here that the way winning are labeled have changed this season. Instead of looking at all top 50 wins equally, the selection committee will be using criteria that breaks wins down into four quadrants, using the RPI:

  • Quadrant 1: Home vs. 1-30, Neutral vs. 1-50, Road vs. 1-75
  • Quadrant 2: Home vs. 31-75, Neutral vs. 51-100, Road vs. 76-135
  • Quadrant 3: Home vs. 76-160, Neutral vs. 101-200, Road vs. 136-240
  • Quadrant 4: Home vs. 161 plus, Neutral vs. 201 plus, Road vs. 240 plus

The latest NBC Sports Bracketology can be found here.

YET TO PLAY

MARQUETTE
PROVIDENCE
SETON HALL
BAYLOR
TCU
LOUISVILLE
VIRGINIA TECH
SMU
MIAMI
LSU
TEXAS
USC
UTAH
MISSISSIPPI STATE
TEXAS A&M
WASHINGTON
ALABAMA
KANSAS STATE
OKLAHOMA
MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE
ST. BONAVENTURE
FLORIDA

Marvin Bagley III returning to Duke lineup against Syracuse after knee injury

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Duke star freshman Marvin Bagley III will be available for the Blue Devils on Saturday when they play Syracuse in an ACC home game.

Bagley missed the past four games due to a knee strain that he suffered in the Feb. 8 game against North Carolina. During Bagley’s absence, the Blue Devils went 4-0 as their defense looked very good and senior Grayson Allen became an aggressive scorer.

It’ll be interesting to see what kind of changes Duke makes with Bagley’s return. Watching Bagley’s health and seeing how many minutes he plays will be another subplot to watch against the Orange.

Kentucky responds to recent reports from FBI investigation

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Kentucky has officially responded to recent reports that some of its players, notably freshman Kevin Knox, could be involved in the fallout from NBA agent Andy Miller and Christian Dawkins’ FBI investigation.

Knox is one of the players mentioned in a Yahoo Sports report on Friday that included documents for how Miller and Dawkins recruited players to the agency. In the report that Dawkins sent to Miller, it is noted that Knox or a family member of Knox allegedly had a meal with Dawkins.

Kevin Knox Sr. said he didn’t know Miller or Dawkins in a report on Friday. Kentucky also seems to be backing Knox entering Saturday’s SEC clash with Missouri. The Wildcats haven’t found anything wrong while reviewing the matter internally as it looks like Knox will play.

Kentucky seems to be following Duke’s path with Wendell Carter Jr.

Both are still allowed to play, despite being listed in the report, because there are a lot of factors still at play here. It should be noted that the evidence against all of these players in the Dawkins case looks bad.  It’s also hard to prove whether an actual encounter occurred. Dawkins doesn’t have the greatest history of being honest as CBT’s Rob Dauster noted.

Dawkins could have been misleading about some of these encounters with his boss to make himself look good. It’s also difficult to tell who truly paid for the meal, as it is conceivable that some of these players or their families paid for themselves.

Regardless of the nuances of this case, Knox looks like he will continue to play for a recently resurgent Kentucky team that has won two straight games. It’ll be interesting to see if this case hovers over Knox and Kentucky or if they can continue to power through and play well.

Memphis guard Jeremiah Martin out for the season with broken left foot

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The University of Memphis announced on Friday that junior point guard Jeremiah Martin will miss the rest of the season with a broken left foot.

The leading scorer in the AAC this season, the 6-foot-3 Martin injured his foot in the first half of the Tigers’ win over Houston on Thursday night. Martin did not return to the game as he left the arena in a protective boot. Martin is expected to have surgery to repair the foot on Tuesday as he’s expected to miss four-to-six weeks with the injury.

While the Tigers will be significantly worse without its best offensive player, Memphis did come back to beat the Cougars without Martin on Thursday night, as they’ll still be a tough out in the American. Martin was putting up 18.9 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game as he was in the midst of a breakout junior campaign.

If Martin returns to school for his senior season, he’ll be under heavy consideration as one of the top 100 players in college basketball next season.