He’s some three weeks into his Ole Miss career, having enrolled after graduating from New Mexico. Gone is the rigorous course load of the typical student-athlete. Gone is the nightmare of his final year at New Mexico — the death threats after his final season went south; the newspaper stories that went after his sometimes colorful on-court behavior; the unyielding pressure of being the coach’s son.
Gone. All of it.
Miles upon miles separate what his life used to be and what it is now. These days he’s simply a cog in the machine, not the machine itself. He couldn’t be happier.
“It’s definitely met my expectations and more,” Neal said of Ole Miss. “When I was on my visit, I got to meet maybe two or three guys. Now I’m starting to get to know other guys and build relationships with the other guys on the team, which is definitely important. But everything (Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy) told me (in recruiting) is all coming true. I wanted to put my trust in somebody, and A.K. hasn’t lied to me yet. It’s been perfect.
“I definitely believe Ole Miss basketball has an upward trajectory. They’ve been really good over the past several years, and I think the Pavilion helps with the overall basketball influence. If you come to visit Ole Miss, you’ll realize pretty quickly why it’s such a special place. It swept me off my feet right away.”
New Mexico reached the NCAA Tournament in 2013-14 with Neal as its sixth man. He was fourth on the team in scoring, and the Lobos won 27 games. He took a medical redshirt a year later following a severe ankle injury.
Neal averaged 12.3 points per game last season and started 31 games, leading the Lobos with 114 assists. However, he did total 101 turnovers and shot 35 percent from the field. UNM was 17-15 (10-8 Mountain West) and missed the postseason.
But again, all of that is behind him. What he faces now is the unenviable task of replacing one of the most productive players in Ole Miss history, Stefan Moody, at point guard. But Neal believes he’s up for the challenge.
“The transition has been pretty easy. The guys have welcomed me with open arms, and they’re helping me learn this system and learn everything about Ole Miss basketball,” he said. “It definitely makes it much, much easier compared to being a freshman. I’ve been through it before, so I can pick things up quicker.
“A.K. recruited me as a point guard, but with ‘Dre and other guys on the team, I could always play off the ball. In today’s game, it’s hard to see one point guard. You always see other guys bringing it up. You can see it with all sorts of types of teams, but point guard is what A.K. recruited me as.”
Kennedy again overturned his roster in the offseason, replacing seven players from a team that finished 20-12 and missed the postseason altogether. But Neal said team chemistry hasn’t been a problem. Quite the opposite, actually.
“I think the team, chemistry-wise, is great,” he said. “I was talking to A.K. about how I believe this is probably one of the best teams I’ve been with just, like, hanging out with each other and doing things with each other — going to eat, working out together and all other sorts of stuff. This is a really tight-knit group, which will help on the court this year.
“We have big expectations for ourselves. We definitely think we can do really well this year. Of course we’re thinking about the NCAA Tournament and advancing. We have a lot of guys on this roster that are really talented. Sebas and ‘Dre, everybody knows about them. But I think we’ve got a lot of other guys who will come in and impact the team as well.”
Neal certainly has some big shoes to fill.
Moody fell 17 assists shy of joining LSU legend Pete Maravich as the only players in SEC history with 700 points and 150 assists in a single season, but he became just the fifth player in Ole Miss history and the 26th player in SEC history to top 700 points. He was a back-to-back All-SEC first team selection and Howell Trophy winner, scoring 20-plus points 22 times last season and eclipsing the 30-point mark five times. He topped 40 once.
Moody was the third-highest power-conference scorer in the nation. He averaged 19.6 points per game in his two years at Ole Miss, which ranks sixth in school history.
“I think I have a great opportunity to come in and be a leader of this team,” Neal said. “Sebas and ‘Dre have obviously been here for a while, but this is my second chance. I want to rebuild, revamp what I’ve been doing. I want to get better. Hopefully this will lead to an opportunity for me to play for a long, long time. As I said, these guys have welcomed me with open arms and made me feel like I’m at home. It makes it a lot easier.”
Rebuild. Revamp. Neal needs only to concern himself with basketball and not much else, really. Sure, he has one class to take and new surroundings to get used to, but Ole Miss is the second chance he was desperately seeking.
And he’s embracing it.
“It definitely feels nice to graduate. That means less classes, so it’s nice,” Neal said. “I’m just trying to have fun and win games. I’m trying to focus on basketball and have fun with the game — enjoy my teammates, enjoy my coaches and enjoy all the people around me.”
A new man, indeed.