Neal isn't overconfident with the Jayhawks stumbling into the sold-out game in Kansas City Saturday. Nope, this is much more about New Mexico than Kansas for Neal. The Lobos have one blemish on their record, a loss to undefeated UMass in the semifinals of the Charleston Classic. That game came a day after a brutal overtime affair with UAB (proving to be a quality win after the Blazers' victory against North Carolina).
Since then, the Lobos have won at New Mexico State and took out a solid Cincinnati. They will follow up this Kansas game with a home game against New Mexico State and a neutral-site game against Marquette next Saturday at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.
"If you told me when we were in Australia (for a summer trip in August) that we'd be 7-1 going into the Kansas game with this schedule I would have taken it," Neal said. "This is a tough stretch for us."
Neal said the freshmen haven't progressed to the point he thought they would, but that's fine. Australian senior forward Cameron Bairstow has been better. He's averaging 19.8 points and 7.1 rebounds. Alex Kirk was the headline name inside and Kendall Williams the marquee name on the perimeter, so getting the unexpected high level of production from Bairstow has elevated the Lobos.
Kansas poses plenty of matchup problems with defending Andrew Wiggins or hanging with Joel Embiid. But the Jayhawks will have to worry about Bairstow. And after losing on a last-second 3-pointer at Colorado and being unable to catch Florida in the second half, the Jayhawks have no room for error.
"He's doing everything," said Neal of Bairstow. "He can shoot it, drive it and is a helluva rebounder. He's physical and he can stay in front of people. He's guarding, too."
Neal said he's not thinking about the KU talent -- on the court. Rather, he holds Kansas coach Bill Self in such high regard that he fully expects the Jayhawks to be even stronger than they were in Gainesville on Tuesday because of Self alone.
The Lobos and Wooden Legacy champion San Diego State are the two clear favorites in the Mountain West. Boise State got rocked in its first test of the season at Kentucky. The Lobos would jump back into the polls with a neutral-site win over Kansas and re-emerge in the national conversation. Look what beating Kansas did for Colorado (ranked) and Florida (suddenly discussed as a national title contender).
"This is a huge barometer," Neal said. "The challenges keep coming. We won't play like Florida with a 1-3-1. But our guys are competing at a high level. We needed a game like this. We needed the Marquette game. We knew Kansas would be good, reloaded and a major challenge for us. We've got five neutral-court games and hopefully it will prepare us for three more of those in the Mountain West tournament [in Las Vegas in March]."