Improving his craft


ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Mike Krzyzewski was once scheming up defenses to stop Georgia Tech point guard Craig Neal, who gave Duke headaches back in many an Atlantic Coast Conference battle in the mid-1980s.

On Monday, defense was the topic again. But this time, Coach K was offering up advice to Neal, who’s in his second season as head coach at New Mexico.

Neal has made it a habit to routinely reach out to coaches across the country — no matter their stature or even their sport — in an effort to improve his craft.

“I talked to Coach K this week and I was really impressed with how they went up to Wisconsin [then-No. 4 Duke beat No. 2 Wisconsin in Madison on Dec. 3] and switched everything and it kind of took Wisconsin out of their offense — took them out of the swing offense,” said Neal, whose Lobos (5-3) host Louisiana at Monroe (4-3) Saturday in the Pit.

I told myself a long time ago, if I ever got a chance [to be a head coach], I’ve got to continue to get better.
— Craig Neal

“To me, that’s part of learning, part of evolving as a coach. So I reached out to him wanting to learn what his thinking was on that. That’s part of getting better as coaches.”

Neal said after leaving Krzyzewski a message, the all-time winningest coach in Division I history called him back later in the day and talked at length about the defensive scheme the Blue Devils employed in the 80-70 win against the Badgers. It was a learning opportunity not exactly available to just anyone.

Where some head coaches may be too proud to seek the advice of other coaches, Neal has never shied away from seeking it out from coaches around the NBA and college game.

During the 2013-14 season, in fact, Neal said he was even trying to think outside the box with how to approach coaching great players, leading to multiple conversations with high-profile, well-respected golf instructor Butch Harmon.

Neal said his desire to seek out opinions and advice from all over the sports landscape was a promise he made to himself years before he landed his first head coaching job in April 2013.

“I told myself a long time ago, if I ever got a chance [to be a head coach], I’ve got to continue to get better,” Neal said.

Neal’s two Lobo squads certainly have shown an ability to adjust on the fly. While he wanted to get the team to run and gun last season, Neal quickly adjusted that philosophy to a slower tempo in order to maximize the team’s advantage in the post with Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow.

While the Lobos remained predominantly a man-to-man, no-switching defense in his first season, Neal and associate head coach Lamont Smith have already successfully implemented more pressing defenses, using a 2-3 zone to shut down favored New Mexico State in a Dec. 3 win in the Pit. Three days later, they utilized for the first time a liberally switching man-to-man defense (even before the Coach K talk) to stymie the heavily favored Valparaiso Crusaders in a 63-46 win in Indiana.

The willingness to change, Neal says, is a necessary part of his job.

“I just think I have to do that to evolve,” Neal said.