ESPN analysts defend Cullen Neal

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New Mexico’s Cullen Neal attempts to make a play during Saturday night’s game against Marquette in Las Vegas, Nev. The freshman guard scored 24 points in a 75-68 UNM win. (David Becker / The Associated Press)

New Mexico’s Cullen Neal attempts to make a play during Saturday night’s game against Marquette in Las Vegas, Nev. The freshman guard scored 24 points in a 75-68 UNM win. (David Becker / The Associated Press)

LAS VEGAS, Nev. – ESPN college basketball writer Andy Katz is aware of the passion of Lobo basketball fans.

Not only was he the Journal’s University of New Mexico men’s basketball writer from 1990 to 1995, he also visits the Duke City multiple times a year as his wife is from New Mexico.

Katz told the Journal on Saturday he was disappointed many fans were so critical of the play of freshman guard Cullen Neal, son of first-year head coach Craig Neal, earlier this season.

“I think that’s completely uncalled for given that Cullen was dealing with two major health issues from the appendectomy to the mono (mononucleosis) and really was not 100 percent until just now,” Katz said after the MGM Grand Showcase doubleheader he worked for ESPN, an event in which Cullen Neal hit six 3-pointers and scored 24 points in a 75-68 UNM win over Marquette.

“Lobo fans should be thankful that he got out of his commitment to go to St. Mary’s (Calif.) and still come there (to UNM). I just think that’s disappointing they were getting on him less than half the season into his freshman year.”

Cullen Neal had an emergency appendectomy and spent 11 days in a Sydney, Australia, hospital in August when the Lobos were there for a three-game exhibition tour. In his recovery, after dropping as much as 30 pounds and seeing his immune system grow weak, Cullen Neal was diagnosed with mononucleosis in October.

Still, he played for the Lobos plenty early in the season and had both struggles with turnovers and shooting, bringing on a dose of Lobos fan complaints.

“I don’t pay attention to it. … I just ignored it and tried to stay with the process,” Neal said. “I was aware of it, but it didn’t matter to me.”

Another person aware of Lobo fan passion and criticism is former coach and ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla, who called Saturday night’s games.

During the ESPNU broadcast, he addressed the matter and told Lobo fans, “He’s one of your own. Root for him.”

After the game, Fraschilla expanded on the comments, telling the Journal, “He’s a player that could have gone anywhere – St. Mary’s or anywhere else just about. And he chose to stay home. He’s a local product, right there in Albuquerque, and he made the decision to stay home and be a part of that team. Embrace that. Don’t turn on him when he’s just starting his college career. He’s going to be great for the Lobos. Fans should enjoy that.”

Craig Neal got choked up in his post game remarks to reporters when asked how he felt as a coach and dad to see his Cullen Neal have a break out game.

“As a coach I always knew he could do that,” Craig Neal said. “That’s why I recruited him. As a dad, I always want him to be perfect and sometimes you’re a little hard on him. I probably put a little too much pressure on him early. I think he’s come through it.”

Cullen Neal is averaging 8.0 points a game while shooting 35.2 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from 3-point range. His 15 3-pointers (on 35 attempts) are second most on the Lobos roster, as are his 29 turnovers. He’s started the past two games for UNM and is averaging 20.6 minutes played per game.

At least two other non-Albuquerque based journalists asked the Journal about the Cullen Neal criticism and of Lobo fans general uneasiness about the team before the Marquette win.

Las Vegas Review-Journal writer Steve Carp, under the headline “Son rises for New Mexico in victory over Marquette,” summed up in his lead paragraph what he thought Saturday’s win mean for the program that has now won seven of its last eight games played in Las Vegas.

“It’s OK to come in from off the ledge, New Mexico basketball fans,” Carp wrote. “Your team hasn’t slipped into the abyss.”

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