ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) It’s a memory that everybody connected to the New Mexico basketball program is hard-pressed to forget.
A year ago, the Lobos were media darlings. They were seeded third and were a popular pick to reach the Final Four.
This from a program that had never won more than one game in any NCAA tournament.
Rather that reaching the last weekend of the season, New Mexico fell to unheralded and fourteenth-seeded Harvard in the opening game.
”We all know what that feeling was like in the locker room last year,” Lobos first-year coach Craig Neal said. ”And my biggest goal was to try and get them back and we got them back. So hopefully they’ll take it from there.”
The seeded-seventh Lobos meet No. 10 Stanford on Friday in St. Louis.
But Neal, who took over the program when Steve Alford left for UCLA shortly after that Harvard defeat, is doing things his own way this time around.
It started with the selection show. The previous two seasons, after New Mexico won the Mountain West tournament, it hosted a selection show love fest in The Pit in front of thousands of fans.
Not this season.
”We got some rest and now we’re going to have a week to prepare for a team that we feel we can go out and hopefully slow up a powerful offense that is dynamic, has a lot of talent on that end,” said senior guard Kendall Williams. ”We’re feeling like we’re in a good place right now.”
The Pit production just got to be too exhausting, Neal said.
”I just wanted my guys to get away from it,” he said. ”That’s a long day when you win the Mountain West tournament and you fly back at 7 (a.m.) and then you have to do the selection show and that’s a long production. And then by time each one of (the media) talks to each guy, it ends up being a four-hour deal.”
The idea, Neal said, was not so much to celebrate what’s been accomplished but to focus on what still needs to be done.
”Our whole thing is where we’re going,” he said. ”We’re pretty focused and we have a purpose. I changed up a little of what we do, trying to make them a little bit more relaxed.”
The attention last season may have been a bit much for a program not used to such things, said senior power forward Cameron Bairstow.
”I think we had some of it last year when we did get a lot of recognition and I think in some aspects, we did let it get into our heads a bit,” he said. ”I think it’s something you have to take it as it is. We haven’t been getting a lot of recognition for most of my time here so when you do get it, you just have to adjust and listen to people inside your inner circle and play your own game.”
The Lobos entered this season using the concept of unfinished business as a mantra.
”We’re going in there with the mindset that we’re going to be in there as long as possible,” Williams said. ”Compete as hard as we can, because last year I don’t think that’s really where our focus was. So if there’s anything we can take out of unfinished business, it’s the aggressive mindset that this is our last chance.”
Neal said he is grateful his squad had an extra day of rest after playing three grueling games in three days at the conference tournament in Las Vegas.
As for preparation, the coach said he’s going to work on a few more Xs and Os as he gets the team ready to face the Cardinal.
”I’m going to do a little bit more playing, a little bit more scrimmaging,” he said. ”A little bit more situational, game-like situations that we’ve done in the past, but we just didn’t do it a lot last year because we were kind of run down at the end of the year. I think our guys are fresher. I think physically they’re in a lot better shape than they were a year ago.”