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Scrutinizing Lobo freshmen basketball player

Cullen Neal’s playing time has come under scrutiny this season, but his coach, Craig Neal, says he will play whom he wants.
(Journal file)
Cullen Neal’s playing time has come under scrutiny this season, but his coach, Craig Neal, says he will play whom he wants. (Journal file)
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Freshmen seeing significant minutes is hardly something new for the New Mexico Lobos.

In the past six-plus seasons, there have been players like Dairese Gary, Kendall Williams, Hugh Greenwood and Alex Kirk not only see plenty of court time, they were all starters within the first few games of their college careers. While all had some early struggles, albeit hardly under the same scrutiny of current Lobo freshman Cullen Neal, all went on to have pretty successful Lobo careers.

And for the most part, their statistics aren’t actually all that different.

So when the criticism came flying fast and furious in the past week at Cullen Neal, the Eldorado High graduate who happens to be the son of head coach Craig Neal, it didn’t sit well with the first-year coach.

“I’m going to play who I want to play,” Craig Neal said Monday night at the Chama River Brewing Co. on the “Lobo Talk” coaches radio talk show on 770 KKOB-AM. “Just because his last name is Neal doesn’t mean that he’s treated any differently. We’ve understood that. We understood that when he came here. I can see that type of attitude and that type of attacks happening at UCLA or UTEP or somewhere like that, but I can’t believe it happens here.”

On Wednesday, Craig Neal said the progress of Cullen Neal, for the most part, is about on par with what he expected five games into his college career.

“I think he’s about where I thought he was going to be,” Craig Neal said. “I knew he was going to make a lot of mistakes early. He didn’t have much time in the summer to get better with his illness (Cullen Neal spent 11 days in an Australian hospital after rupturing his appendix them contracted mononucleosis during recovery). I’ve probably put him in some spots he shouldn’t have been put into. That’s part coaching and that’s part his fault. He’s tough. That doesn’t effect him.”

Cullen Neal is averaging 9.0 points, 2.4 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game. The one stat that sticks out like a sore thumb, however, is the team-high 18 turnovers.

“He’s our fourth leading scorer, almost averaging double figures for a freshman. That’s pretty good,” Craig Neal said. “Now he’s almost coming that close in turnovers. Hopefully he’ll improve on that. But I think I’ve put him in some spots that are not fair to him, but at the same time, he’s one of our ball handlers.”

Three other current Lobo starters – Williams, Kirk and Greenwood – played significant minutes as true freshman at UNM. Neal’s 97 minutes through five games is fewer than any of the others and he has yet to start a game while those other three had all started multiple times in their first five games.

Cullen Neal’s 45 points are fewer than only Williams, who had 49 in his first five games, although in 22 more minutes played. And he has had three double-digit scoring games, which neither Kirk, Williams nor Greenwood had five games into their careers.

Cullen Neal’s 34.3 percent field goal shooting, hurt significantly by one 0-for-8 game last week in Charleston, S.C., is better than the 33.3 percent shooting Greenwood opened his career with.

No other Lobo freshman has played significant minutes this season.

POLL REACTION: Craig Neal said he was prepared for his team to fall out of the Associated Press Top 25 on Monday after last week’s loss to Massachusetts. But that doesn’t mean he entirely agreed with it.

“Unless you’re in the top 15, it’s hard to (lose) and stay in,” Craig Neal said. “I was kind of surprised because I thought that we got beat by a pretty good team that maybe should have been ranked before we got there. I think they’re a very good team.”

TICKET UPDATE: As of Wednesday, there were 47 lower bowl tickets remaining for Saturday’s game vs. San Diego and 101 club level seats remaining. The Lobos have not yet had a sell out in the 15,411-seat Pit this season.

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