Cullen Neal/Ole Miss Athletics

Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy moved Cullen Neal off the ball against Auburn, and the junior responded

Cullen Neal was considered one of the best available graduate transfers in college basketball when he opted to leave New Mexico to finish his career last spring.

He was pursued by, among others, Ole Miss, Ohio State and Texas A&M, each school envisioning Neal as a ready-made point guard who could step in and potentially be the missing piece for an NCAA Tournament hopeful.

He ultimately decided on the Rebels. His familiarity with head coach Andy Kennedy was undoubtedly the most important factor, but the departure of Stefan Moody, the team’s starting point guard, to graduation certainly helped, too.

But 15 games into the 2016-17 season, Neal’s role has already changed. His turnover issues at New Mexico, where he had 101 in his final Lobo season, carried over, and Ole Miss’ offense struggled with rhythm and pace as a result. So, Kennedy moved Neal off the ball against Auburn, and after failing to score even one first-half basket, Neal came alive in the second, totaling 13 points on 4 of 7 from the field in an 88-85 Ole Miss win. He was 3 of 6 from 3.

“It hasn’t been too difficult because my teammates are always talking to me, and we’re always talking to each other,” Neal said of his role change. “As you’ve seen, we’ve changed a lot of lineups since the year started. If A.K. continues to do that, we’ll be ready. We’re always ready.”

Cullen Neal/Josh McCoy

Neal is one of, if not the best, shooters on the roster, and Kennedy said Neal is at his best when offense is ran for him and he’s able to set and shoot. He was proven right at Auburn. Point guard might be the position of the past.

“We’ve changed his role, obviously,” Kennedy said. “We’ve been point guard, point guard, point guard. But (against Auburn), we made a change. He didn’t play any point. He’s still a primary ball-handler; we still trust his decision-making. He was trying to be the inbounder vs. (Auburn’s) pressure. We didn’t do that as well as I would’ve hoped, but I thought he made pretty good decisions with the ball. 

“I was just proud he knocked down open looks, man. He’s a good shooter, most especially when he’s set. We tried to put him in actions where he could do what he does, and he made big plays for us down the stretch.”

Breein Tyree started the game at point guard, though Deandre Burnett was given the majority of the minutes in the second half. Burnett led the team with 18 points, with most of his damage coming from the free throw line. He was 10 of 12.

Expect more of the same going forward, even if Saturday was a departure from what Kennedy deemed as Ole Miss’ usual formula. The Rebels entered the game tops in the SEC in rebounding margin. They were minus-10. They also had more turnovers than assists, which they were able to overcome and win for just the second time this season.

Instead, Ole Miss made plays down the stretch, its new-look lineup coming through when the Rebels’ needed it the most. They next host Georgia Wednesday at 6 p.m. CT.

“We’ve got one guy (Sebastian Saiz) who’s commanding such attention that’s it’s allowing other guys to be free,” Kennedy said. “With the way they have to guard Sebas in the post, he’s hard to handle one-on-one. He’s doing a better job reading of where the help is coming from and trying to deliver the ball. But other than (Saiz), we’re going to be a work in progress finding guys that play well in certain opportunities. We shortened the bench; that’s what you do on the road in the SEC. We shortened the bench and the guys responded.”

None more so than Neal.

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