In 2014 freshmen are the marquee players in college basketball.
Long gone are the days of Patrick Ewing, Ralph Sampson, and Danny
Manning developing into the best players in the country. In
2014 a star high school hoopster must make a pressure packed
decision about what college to attend. A year later the player
must make a similar choice about whether or not to go pro. This is
an undoubtedly stressful process for the nation's top players.
However, few freshmen have had the one year journey that New Mexico PG Cullen Neal has had. To say that Neal has had a year
full of change, pressure, and choices would be an understatement.
Where to begin?
In January of 2013 life was very
different for the top 100 recruit. Neal's father Craig was the
associate head coach of a nationally ranked New Mexico squad. The
younger Neal was in the midst of one of the most successful prep
careers in New Mexico history. His stellar play at Eldorado High
School resulted in Neal being proclaimed the heir apparent to St.
Mary's star guard Matthew Dellavedova. Nobody foreshadowed what
was to come.
Perhaps it all started on March 30, 2013. Ten days after agreeing to a ten year contract New Mexico head coach Steve Alford abruptly announced that he was leaving to coach The UCLA Bruins. Not only was New Mexico losing the coach that had won four out of five Mountain West titles; they also were going to lose prized recruit Bryce Alford. In the wake of Alford's departure Craig Neal became the overwhelming choice to be his successor. On April 2, 2013 Lobo fans got their wish when Craig Neal was named head coach. It was not a surprise when Cullen Neal was let out of his commitment to St. Mary's in order to play for his father. Lobo fans rejoiced as they had got the coach and the player they wanted. The storybook ending would still have some twists and turns.
In August New Mexico embarked on a foreign trip to Australia. Accompanied by mother Janet and brother Dalton, the trip seems like an ideal way to kick off a new chapter in the Neal's life. The dream soon turned into a nightmare when Cullen was admitted to an Australian hospital to undergo an emergency appendectomy. While Cullen was recovering from a life threatening medical emergency, his father Craig was coaching his new team for the first time. Meanwhile back in The U.S the Twitter account for the San Diego State student organization "The Show" was wishing death upon the ill freshman. Disciplinary action was taken against "The Show" while Cullen had an extended in Australia to heal from his aliments. Both the illness and the tweets galvanized the New Mexico fan base behind Cullen Neal. The honeymoon would be short lived.
Four games into Cullen Neal's career many Lobo fans had changed their tune on the freshman. After a six turnover effort on a loss to UMASS fans begin to doubt if Cullen was going to become the player they thought he was going to be. Some even went as far as to charge Craig Neal with nepotism. The noise got even louder when in his first start in-state rival New Mexico State stunned UNM on its home floor. The expectations were not high for the Eldorado grad when his team was set to face Marquette in Las Vegas.
However, Neal did what most people only dream of; he turned
around his outlook around in Vegas. The once maligned Neal came
out on fire hitting six of eight three pointers en route to a team
high twenty four points in the victory over Marquette. The
performance led to multiple national pundits as to defend the
freshman. Lobo fans also seemed to be coming around to the fact
that the once coveted Neal was still the player they campaigned
for in April. Neal doubled down back in Albuquerque with another
team high of eighteen points against Grand Canyon. Neal was
now living up to the hype and silencing the critics that were so
vocal in the previous two months.
New Mexico's Cullen Neal
With New Mexico gearing up to defend another conference title, a
new set of challenges will emerge for Neal. The return of Hugh Greenwood will send Neal back to his reserve role. Will re
readjust to being a bench player? Neal has only played one road
game in his colligate career, how will he deal with opposing
school's student sections? More specifically how will he
compose himself when he meets "The Show" face to face? How will he
compare to longtime rival/friend Bryce Alford? While there are
several things one can question about Cullen Neal one thing that
is in little doubt is his toughness. With the whirlwind that he
has faced in the last year it's hard to imagine how high his
ceiling can get after a normal year.
Special thanks to Marty Saiz of Marty Saiz State Farm Insurance
for the photos.