Ole Miss basketball's most recent graduate transfer, Cullen Neal, will be eligible to play immediately as a junior for Andy Kennedy next season, but his journey from Albuquerque to Oxford is anything so simple as that. Son of New Mexico coach Craig Neal, the former Lobo brings a reputed lightening rod personality in his train.
Neal's 2013-14 freshman season was predictably pedestrian, when he averaged 19.9 minutes and 7.1 points per game in all 34 of the Lobos' contests. New Mexico won the Mountain West Conference tournament that year, earning a No. 7 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Lobos dropped their opening round game to No. 10 seed Stanford and have since missed the Big Dance the past two seasons.
His sophomore campaign ended as soon as it started, with Neal taking a medical redshirt just three games into the season, so fans had to wait until this past season to see what he could really do.
That, um, didn't go so well.
The death threats
Soaring expectations seemed to attend Neal the minute he stepped foot on UNM's campus. Why shouldn't they? Here's the head coach's son, after all, playing in his father's system. He came off the bench and did alright as a freshman, and then injury sidelined him as a sophomore. This past season, Neal's sophomore year of eligibility proper, saw him average 30.2 minutes and 12.3 points per game. He also turned the ball over more than three times per contest.
On Feb. 9, 2016, Neal had a particularly poor showing in a losing effort against Utah State, 80-72. He scored six points, committed three turnovers and four personal fouls, and shot 0-for-4 from three point range. Three days earlier, Feb. 6, he had given up an egregiously bad turnover by stepping out of bounds late in a 78-71 loss to San Diego State.
On Feb. 11, the Daily Lobo reported that Neal had begun receiving death threats. He was forced to change his phone number and deep-six his Twitter and Facebook accounts. Fans and, um, talk radio criticized the father-son, coach-player dynamic, questioning the caliber of Neal's high school performance.
Such was the vitriol that Cullen and his father sat down with UNM police on Feb. 14 to discuss what the player had called "death threats" during a press conference earlier in the week. The Albuquerque Journal reported on Feb. 16 that investigators described the threats as "vague" and that, without being shown any harassing tweets, texts or other messages -- Neal had since purchased a new phone -- there was little police could do. "It was just more of a 'Watch yourself,' not alluding to anything specific," said UNMPD Lt. Tim Stump.
The story soon spiraled out from Albuquerque and gained national traction. Suddenly on Feb. 17, what investigators had previously described as erroneous and vague cyberbullying ratcheted up to threats "of a serious nature ... entirely consistent with how Coach Neal described them to the media and police." And further:
While we take these types of incidents involving any student very seriously, and investigate them thoroughly, we also respect the right of a victim to choose not to file a report.
After mid-February, the story went virtually silent. The Lobos and Neal finished out the 2015-16 season and lost their first round game of the MWC Tournament to Nevada, 64-62. Four days later Cullen announced that he was transferring, and that was that. Without hard evidence that Neal did in fact receive death threats, it's impossible to know what was said with however amount of credibility. Certainly the guy garners a lot of Twitter hate. Whatever the case, UNM was a toxic situation for Neal, and he needed to get out of there. That's fine.
The "borderline arrogance"
Probably not coincidentally, Neal's on-court presence also garners a lot of online hate. The Santa Fe New Mexican penned a feature on Neal in January that describes him variously as "a mouthy brat ... a smack-talking punk ... a cocky kid of privilege ... one who lacked humility and respect for the game." DAMN THAT'S FIRE.
Interestingly, though, this parade of epithets comes in service of asking for all those traits to return to Neal's game. Dude is apparently at his best when he's crawling inside his opponents' heads and mouthing off. Consider the following, for instance:
At the middle of it all is the swagger, the borderline arrogance that Cullen Neal can bring to the table — kind of like the time he drew a technical foul at Wyoming when he canned a late free throw and then cupped his ear to the Cowboys’ student section as if to prod them to try harder to rattle him.
Hmmmm ... a rage-inducing hurler landing in Oxford after a stint in the Mountain West? Why that kinda reminds us of--
--HOW DID YOU GET IN HERE MARSHALL?
In any case, it seems that the perceived nepotism of Craig Neal bringing his son onto the Lobos' roster, coupled with Cullen's outsized personality, coupled further with his failing to meet the basketball expectations set for him by New Mexico's fanbase, coalesced for a perfect storm of failure, criticism and possibly worse. He needed to get away from Albuquerque, and now he finally has.
Can he produce?
That has yet to be seen. If the mumblings about his assumed role with the Rebs are true, then AK will ask Neal to run true point. One of the loudest criticisms hurled at Neal is his turnover rate, however, which does leave much to be desired. Over his career, he's averaging a 20.2 turnover percentage, more than one lost possession out of every five.
As for Neal's outside shot, that too could use some work, especially in comparison to what the Rebs enjoyed while Moody or even Hendo were terrorizing opponents' perimeters. In the era of Steph Curry, run-and-gun Andy holds the three ball as an article of faith, and it's this area of Neal's game that'll attract the most scrutiny upon his arrival in Oxford.
Cullen didn't shoot from outside a lot last season. He made 32.7 percent of his three pointers on just 162 attempts. For comparison's sake, Stefan Moody attempted 272 threes at a 37.9 percent rate in his final year, while Hendo fired off 377 treys at a 34.2 percent rate. Furthermore, Neal's career three point attempt rate is 50.9 percent, while Hendo's was a whopping 72.0 percent. Moody's 49.2 percent career line accounts for his inside-outside versatility and increased role on the dribble in his last season.
Even so, a glance at Neal's game shows him equally comfortable off the ball or off the dribble, and his handles in traffic are good when he's clicking.
So, barring some extraterrestrial offseason and development of his outside accuracy, Neal may not be called upon to carry the three point volume shooting of a Hendo or a Moody. He appears perfectly comfortable directing traffic, and on those occasions when he slips off a low screen out to the perimeter, his stroke is as confident as anyone's out there. And hell, he has the opportunity for a fresh start next season, and sometimes that's all a shooter needs to find his game anew.