New Mexico pushing to contend again in Mountain West

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) Even though four starters are back, this will be a new-look New Mexico team since the coach's son has left the program to finish his career at Ole Miss.

An often tumultuous relationship between point guard Cullen Neal and the fans in the town where he grew up led to his departure and leaves the Lobos minus one returning starter.

''Cullen doesn't play for me,'' coach Craig Neal said in responding to a question about his son. ''You have to go to Ole Miss press conferences.''

Still, his absence will have an impact.

''Any time you lose somebody who was going to be your fifth starter, it's different. It affects you,'' coach Neal said.

But with a solid nucleus of returning players, the Lobos seek to return to the postseason after a disappointing two-year absence.

Leading the way for New Mexico will be a pair of first-team all-Mountain West players in guard Elijah Brown, who led the conference in scoring at 21.7, and power forward Tim Williams, who averaged 16.8.

It's led to optimism that the Lobos will be back to challenge for the conference crown again.

''We had some really high moments and we had some really low moments,'' Neal said. ''Now we're looking for more consistency. I'm really excited because these guys are a year older. I think we're on an uptick. The program is on an uptick from where we thought it was going to be.''

Here are some things to consider as the Lobos chase San Diego State for Mountain West supremacy:

WHAT'S THE POINT: Cullen Neal's departure - he can play right away and will have two seasons of eligibility as a graduate transfer - leaves a gaping hole at point guard. But coach Neal is convinced returning sophomore Jordan Hunter and incoming freshman Jalen Harris will be effective.

''Hopefully, we'll figure it out real soon,'' Neal said. ''It won't take very long to figure out who's going to be that fifth guy. I think Jordan and Jalen Harris will be able to do a good job.''

EXPERIENCED HANDS: Guard Sam Logwood and rail-thin 7-footer Obij Aget are the other returning starters, while six other Lobos also saw minutes last season, led by versatile Xavier Adams, who saw time at forward, off guard and shooting guard.

''We're excited about where we are as a team,'' Neal said. ''We're excited about our depth athletically. I like out athletic ability. I think we have some frontcourt depth this year that we didn't have. I think we can play Xavier Adams at a couple of different positions with his energy and glue and making different little plays.''

NEWCOMER NUANCES: Of the players new to the Lobos, Arizona State transfer Connor MacDougall is gathering the most attention. A 6-foot-9 redshirt sophomore, MacDougall played in six games for the Sun Devils before deciding to move on.

''I wish we had him last year,'' Neal said. ''He does a lot of good things. He can rebound it. He's active. He's big, he's strong. He can score the ball. He's got great hands. He gives us another guy we can go to on the block.''

WHERE'S THE D: The Lobos under Neal and former coach Steve Alford were always defense-oriented. Last year, New Mexico's defense suffered, allowing more than 73 points a game, and it got even worse as the Lobos played out the string.

''We have to get better on the defensive end,'' Neal said. ''The last six games last year, we gave up 77 points a game and we can't turn the ball over like we did last year.''

BROWN HAMSTRUNG: For the Lobos to have any real chance of getting back into the Mountain West upper echelon, Brown has to be at the top of his game. But he has been sitting out of practice as he recuperates from a hamstring problem that arose at the end of last season. On the pre-season Jerry West Award watch list, Brown is a capable outside shooter who can also drive the lane. But not when he's hindered.

''It's concerning because it's still bothering him,'' Neal said. ''We're trying to get him as well as we can and get him 100 percent. I'm not going to put him out there at 80 or 85 with a chance of him getting hurt again. It's a lingering situation.''

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