Lobos, Neal ride waves of season

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The highs and lows of the college basketball world can be measured in text messages.

Such is the life Craig Neal lives in.

After his team’s Jan. 1 road win at San Diego State, the fourth-year University of New Mexico basketball coach had 98 text messages from the time the game ended until the time he got to the locker room to talk to his players.

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Saturday, after the still hard to believe way the Lobos let a 25-point second half lead evaporate in a 105-104 overtime loss to Nevada, Neal’s phone showed five text messages by the time he made it up to the locker room to talk to his team.

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“The 98, there’s about 70 of them that really wanted me to be the coach and now are wavering,” said Neal. “… After the Nevada game, it’s crickets. That’s part of it. That’s part of our profession.”

Such is the dilemma the Lobos (9-7, 2-2 Mountain West) seem to be caught in as they prepare to host UNLV (8-9, 1-3) tonight in the Pit.

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Fans still seem eager and willing to jump on board when there is success from a team that has shown flashes of potential. But there is also an increasingly uneasy segment of the fan base that is ready to jump ship at any sign of adversity — something that has reared its head many times in the past few seasons.

To that, Neal hopes fans, even those who are not fans of him remaining the program’s head coach, remember the kids still wearing the Lobo jerseys.

“You’re either a Lobo or you’re not a Lobo,” said Neal. “These guys deserve to have people cheer for them and that’s what I say. I just want these people to support them.

“I understand some people don’t like the direction I’ve taken the program. I understand that. I’m a big boy. But I took over for a guy who’s the greatest coach who ever coached here (Steve Alford). … He set the foundation for us to be successful. I just haven’t lived up to it yet.”

Now, Neal acknowledged he may be “turning a new thing” with a very upbeat and open demeanor at Monday’s news conference. He discussed how he and his team have no other option but to move forward with a belief it proved in the past week it can be better than the two teams picked ahead of them in the preseason league polls (SDSU was No. 1, Nevada No. 2).

The positive spin forward comes as Saturday’s historic loss was still making the rounds in the national news cycle Monday. Nevada coach Eric Musselman was interviewed on the Jim Rome radio show and the Associated Press published a fresh story nationwide titled “The Anatomy of a Comeback” that broke down what it called one of the greatest comebacks in the sport’s history.

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Neal said he may have some regrets about how the end of Saturday’s game transpired, but he wouldn’t change a thing about how the game was coached. He again credited his staff for helping put together a game plan and scouting report that thoroughly dominated the Wolf Pack much of the night, a point acknowledged Saturday night by Musselman and several Nevada assistants.

And while he’s watched the game film more than once, he doesn’t plan on subjecting his players to relive all of it.

“Probably the good parts,” he said of what he’ll show the team. “Which, for 37 minutes, that’s probably the best my team’s played (in the last three seasons).”

KNOCK HIM DOWN: Friday, even before Nevada’s 3-point barrage (they had 15 in the game) and Jordan Caroline’s 45-point outburst, Neal was asked what he would have done in his Georgia Tech playing days had an opponent gone off on him.

“Knock him down,” Neal said before the question was even completed. “Knock him down. Yeah, but I just don’t think players think that way (anymore). I don’t think players think the same way we used to think. I don’t know if there’s an urgency to get to shooters. I don’t know if there’s an urgency to get stops.”

Neal was not suggesting his players do something dirty to an opposing player, but did say players in this era don’t seem to take it personal when they’re scored on.

That said, even if a Lobo had tried knocking down Caroline, good luck. The 235-pound forward is the son of former NFL all-pro Simeon Rice and grandson of J.C. Caroline, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame who led the nation in rushing during an All-America season in 1953 at the University of Illinois.

INJURY REPORT: In addition to Xavier Adams (ACL tear) being out for the season, the Lobos will be without sophomore power forward Connor MacDougall until at least the Jan. 17 road game at Boise State. He is under a mandatory concussion protocol observation period after being hit in the head during the first half of Saturday’s loss.

Sophomore point guard Jordan Hunter, who hurt his ankle Jan. 1 at San Diego State and missed the past two games, practiced Tuesday and is a game-time decision vs. UNLV.

GAME TIME: The Jan. 24 home game vs. Utah State has been designated for an ESPNU broadcast rather than online on ESPN3.com, the network announced on Monday. Game time is set for 9 p.m. in the Pit.

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