December 04, 2015

Given Albuquerque's remote location, New Mexico coach Craig Neal requires a national footprint while recruiting for a program seeking its fifth NCAA Tournament appearance in a seven-season span.

He's had success in his native Indiana, where he returns for the third time in four seasons as the Lobos match up with an undefeated Purdue squad coming off its best win of the season Saturday.

Hailing from Washington, Indiana, Neal was a standout high school player who left the Hoosier State for Georgia Tech. He returned to the college ranks as an assistant under current UCLA coach Steve Alford - himself one of Indiana's most famous prep and college players - at Iowa in 2004 and followed him to New Mexico in 2007.

Neal was promoted by the Lobos in 2013 after Alford departed for Westwood and has made it a point to return his roots during nonconference play. New Mexico (5-1) has won both its games played in Indiana while Neal has been on the sidelines, defeating Indiana State in 2012 when he was an assistant and easing by Valparaiso 63-46 last season.

The 11th-ranked Boilermakers (7-0), however, present a significant upgrade in caliber of competition, and Neal is embracing the challenge his friend and Purdue coach Matt Painter will present his Lobos.

"They're hard-nosed, they play hard, they guard you," Neal said. "It's a tough place to play ... we might have been one of the first teams to ever offer (Caleb) Swanigan (a scholarship) when we recruited him, so we know how good he is.

"When you grow up in Indiana and you play basketball, you kind of know everybody. I've known (Painter) since he was a high school player and with my dad being a high school coach we knew a lot of people."

The trips have also proven a productive recruiting tool for Neal. Leading scorer and rebounder Tim Williams (17.5 ppg, 9.2 rpg) is from Flossmoor, Illinois, roughly a two-hour drive from Purdue, and starting sophomore forward Sam Longwood is from Indianapolis.

"We've done well recruiting there," Neal said. "There's a lot of schools there, but we've got great connections there and we've gotten a lot of good players out of there."

Williams and 7-foot-1 center Obji Aget (7.7 ppg, 7.0 rpg) will have their hands full with a Boilermakers front line that boasts NBA-like size in 7-foot supersub A.J. Hammonds, 7-2 Isaac Haas and the aforementioned 6-9 freshman standout Swanigan. Hammonds provided the spark in Tuesday's 72-59 win at Pittsburgh in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, totaling season highs of 24 points and 12 rebounds while providing space for freshman Ryan Cline to hit four second-half 3-pointers to keep the Panthers at bay.

''I thought A.J. did a great job of finishing,'' Painter said. ''When A.J. came alive and was making some plays it opened things up and Ryan stepped up and made some 3s.''

Cline, who didn't score the previous three games, is 12 for 25 from 3-point range and 0 for 3 inside the arc.

Swanigan averages a team-high 9.0 rebounds for the Boilermakers, who are outrebounding opponents by 12.4 per contest and lead the nation in defensive field goal percentage (32.4). There may be a concern in the backcourt, though, with senior guard Rapheal Davis' status uncertain due to a sprained knee that has sidelined him the last two games.

"He's good at running," Painter said of Davis after the win over Pitt. "Changing directions, cutting, he doesn't have that trust yet. We'll see how it goes."

New Mexico could exploit Davis' absence with its backcourt tandem of Elijah Brown and Neal's son, Cullen, who have combined to average 34.3 points and made 29 of New Mexico's 43 3-pointers.

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