Cullen Neal did not step into The Pit as the hometown hero.... He disrespected opponents – and the game – in high school and was Public Enemy No.1 in high school gyms across New Mexico because of that punkish attitude
Editor’s note: This article corrects an error in the print edition. The Lobos returned from Hawaii with an 0-3 record.
BY RICHARD STEVENS
Can Neal handle it?
There are reasons to suspect “Noodles” needs to be thrown a life jacket. He has rabbit ears. He is sensitive. He is a Helicopter Dad turning too quickly into a Helicopter Coach, and this is not going unnoticed by New Mexico fans.
For sure, Coach Neal has an out – one used by Coach Bob Davie and Coach Yvonne Sanchez to quiet the Lobo wolves. The Mountain West is mediocre. It can be exploited. But Neal didn’t exploit it last year. As much as anything, his Lobos became one of the whipping boys of a below-average conference.
The season of 2015-16 is a crucial one for Neal. He inherited a potential Sweet 16 team two seasons ago from Steve Alford, but Neal lost to Stanford in the NCAA first round. Those seniors seemed more than ready and willing to escape the Neal family of basketball.
Neal’s second season fell somewhere between abysmal and embarrassing. The team had about as much chemistry and purpose as what you might find in Johnson Gym in a pick-up game of wannabes. There was no postseason in 2014-15. No dreams of finally, finally, finally watching a Lobo team reach NCAA sweetness.
The Lobos now drift into the 2016 Mountain West wars in a stumble. The loss to Rice in The Pit was … what? Let’s go with inexcusable. The Lobos ended their Hawaii vacation at 0-3 with a final 82-59 collapse to Washington State, a game marred by 18 UNM turnovers. They lost by 30 points to Brigham Young. On his postgame radio show, Neal said his Lobos have “some issues.”
Really? Yes. It is a program with issues. The Pit turnstiles no longer spin at the same rate or the same excitement. The disconnection of Lobos with the Albuquerque community continues to grow under the tired leadership of Paul Krebs, UNM’s overpaid vice president of Athletics.
There are things to like about Neal’s 2015-16 Lobos, however.
They are young and should get better. Transfer guard Elijah Brown has the ability to be first team All-MWC and the star of this team – if Neal allows it. Under-used Jordan Hunter could give UNM depth at the point – again, if Neal allows it. Forward Tim Williams can be sensational inside – if the Lobo guards allow him to touch the ball.
This Lobo team has offensive potential, but Neal might want to introduce his team to honest-effort basketball on the defensive end. Washington State had five starters in double figures as UNM finished dead last in the eight-team Diamond Head Classic – a skid that revealed a 9-16 record over UNM’s past 25 games.
Coach Neal talks a good game – his ego roars – but has yet to turn the talk into disciplined Xs and Os – or quality wins. He lectures Lobo fans about his basketball pedigree and his uncanny ability to recognize the skills needed to play “the point.”
Ah, the point.
At this point, the job of point falls into the sometimes-capable hands of Neal Junior – Daddy’s Boy, as Cullen Neal is often referred to on fan sites and even by grumbling tongues found in The Pit’s overpriced Sky Suites.
Cullen Neal has talent. He plays with courage, and he can shoot. His defense needs work. His court vision is good, but his decisions are not always of the same caliber. He had 22 turnovers in 95 minutes of playing time in Hawaii. He is on pace to become the most disliked Lobo ever, which is a label of his own making – with an assist from dad.
Cullen Neal did not step into The Pit as the hometown hero. His is no Mike Winters, Kenny Thomas or Greg Brown. He disrespected opponents – and the game – in high school and was Public Enemy No.1 in high school gyms across New Mexico because of that punkish attitude.
He has matured at New Mexico, but still swaggers onto the court with attitude and immature posturing. He whines too much. He looks at Daddy too much. He hot-dogs too much. It probably would have been in his best interest to play ball somewhere else, but it didn’t happen.
The way out of his dilemma for Cullen Neal is, simply stated, to start playing with class and maturity – to grow up. In fact, the “grow up” theme is a good one for all these Lobos. If they embrace it, the season of 2015-16 might avoid the dismal label.
Richard Stevens is a former sports writer for The Albuquerque Tribune. More recently he was an insider at the Lobo athletic department. Reach him at email@example.com.