Ole Miss basketball opens the 2016-17 season against UT-Martin Friday at 6 p.m. Neal will, of course, start at point guard, just as he did when the Rebels easily dispatched of Morehouse in exhibition action a week ago.
But the environment, the atmosphere, is sure to be much different. Now the games count. More importantly for Neal, however, it will finally bring about the reset of his career. He couldn’t be more excited.
“Definitely nice to finally get going,” Neal said. “We’ve been practicing hard, going at it and competing. It’s going to be nice to play somebody else. I love how everything is coming together. I think we have a bunch of unique pieces and a bunch of different pieces that will help us be a great team.”
Neal topped all Rebels with 28 minutes played in the exhibition. He filled the stat sheet, totaling 19 points, seven assists and five rebounds. He was 5 of 13 from the floor and 3 of 9 from 3, including back-to-back made 3s to open the game.
Neal came to Ole Miss from New Mexico, where he played three seasons under his father, Lobo head coach Craig Neal. He started in 31 games as a redshirt sophomore last season and was the team leader in assists with 3.7 per game.
At Ole Miss, head coach Andy Kennedy is asking him to lead a new-look lineup featuring fellow transfers Deandre Burnett and Justas Furmanavicius, as well as 2015-16 holdovers Rasheed Brooks and Sebastian Saiz.
“They better look right off the bat or I’m not going to look good,” Kennedy said of Neal and Burnett. “They were brought in here to be immediate impact guys. Deandre’s been in the program for a year, so we anticipate him to go in and smoothly transition, even though he hasn’t been in a real game since March of 2015. That’s a long time ago. Cullen’s played a lot of games, even though this is a completely different set of circumstances. This should not be new to him, nor should it be (Sebastian Saiz) or Rasheed Brooks or Marcanvis Hymon. Those are really our veterans, and we need stability out of your veterans.”
“Everything he told me on my visit since he was recruiting me, he hasn’t lied to me once,” Neal said of his relationship with Kennedy. “The fact that he’s been telling me the truth from the get-go, I can just keep trusting him and follow his lead.”
The Rebels aren’t a finished product yet. Far from it. With six newcomers, there’s likely to be growing pains, especially early. Neal has already identified one area that needs improvement: turnovers. Ole Miss had 20 in the blowout of Morehouse.
“There’s a bunch of things we can do to get better, but I think it was a good first overall performance,” he said. “It was the first time we’ve all really played with each other in a real game, a real atmosphere. There’s a lot of stuff we can learn, but there are a lot of positives that came from the game. We did have a lot of turnovers the first game. I think we had 20 turnovers exactly so definitely taking care of the ball is something we can work on.”