ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — While it has seemed inevitable since the day his father was announced as the new coach for the New Mexico Lobos basketball team April 3, Cullen Neal can now say he’s staying home.
The Eldorado High senior took to Twitter to confirm the news Saturday morning: “I’m going to be a Lobo. And it looks like we got some #unfinishedbusiness! Let’s go!!!”
Unfinished business — something his father, Craig Neal, talked about during his introductory news conference as UNM’s new head coach — has become the Lobos’ mantra for the 2013-14 season.
While Cullen said he felt in his heart several days ago that playing for the Lobos was what he wanted to do, he still had some unfinished business of his own to attend to since he signed a National Letter of Intent in November to enroll next fall at Saint Mary’s College in Morage, Calif.
“This was hard because I love Saint Mary’s, too,” Cullen Neal told the Journal. “I called coach (Randy) Bennett (Saturday) morning, and it was probably the hardest call I’ve ever had to make. He’s one of my favorite guys and has been recruiting me since the eighth grade. It was real hard.”
Bennett, who played two seasons for his father, Tom, at Mesa (Ariz.) Community College from 1980-82 before moving on to UC-San Diego, said he hates to see a prized recruit go, but understands the decision.
“He has the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play for his father, Craig, at the University of New Mexico,” Bennett said in an email to the Journal. “Because of this special situation, we have agreed to grant him a release of his commitment to Saint Mary’s. Cullen is a great person and will be very successful at New Mexico. I wish him and his family the best.”
Craig Neal told the Journal on Saturday that he didn’t feel comfortable commenting on the matter because neither the Neal family nor anyone at UNM had officially received the release paperwork from Saint Mary’s. The official paperwork will likely be received by UNM on Monday.
CBS Sports senior college basketball writer Jeff Goodman on Saturday morning reported sources confirming that the standout, who averaged 26.5 points per game this past season at Eldorado High, had been released from the letter of intent.
At his introductory news conference, Craig Neal was asked about the prospects of his 6-foot-4 son playing for him in a Lobos uniform.
“If his mom’s good at recruiting, we’ll have a shot,” Craig Neal said.
Cullen Neal said at the time he saw the decision as a tough one, but a can’t-miss proposition.
“I sort of feel like I’m in a win-win situation now,” Cullen Neal told the Journal. “I love Saint Mary’s and coach Bennett, and as of right now I’m still going there, but we (the Neal family) will talk about everything and see what is best. I would love to play for my dad, too, and I love the Lobos.”
The play-for-your-dad release from a letter of intent has already played out for UNM this spring as La Cueva senior Bryce Alford, who signed in the fall to play for the Lobos, will now follow his father, former UNM head coach Steve Alford, to UCLA.
Steve Alford had decided he didn’t want to recruit both as they were similar position players in the same recruiting class, so Cullen Neal went the Saint Mary’s route instead, where he was being counted on to help replace superstar Matthew Dellavedova, who is graduating.
Cullen Neal, like his dad, is a far more emotional player on the court than are Bryce and Steve Alford. The families are very close and share the similar intensity and desire to win, but the open display of emotion is unique to the Neals.
Cullen Neal made fans and foes on the prep scene around New Mexico when he would do such things as blow kisses to opposing student sections after nailing 3-pointers at key moments. His effort and skill made him arguably New Mexico’s best prep player over the past two seasons.
Goodman told the Journal the addition of Cullen Neal likely solidifies the Lobos, who return four starters from their 29-win team this past season, as a legitimate preseason Top 25 team.
“Cullen is a huge addition for the Lobos,” Goodman told the Journal. “He is long and talented and gives UNM a guy who can both score and also find guys for open looks.
“I saw him play a few times in the summer and felt he was a Top 100 guy. New Mexico fans will love him — and everyone else will hate him — because, like his dad, he wears his emotions on his sleeve.”
Cullen Neal said he doesn’t plan on blowing any kisses to opposing Mountain West student sections, which have grown in recent years to some of the most menacing in the country, namely ones at Colorado State’s Moby Arena, “The Show” student section at Viejas Arena in San Diego and the “Rebellion” at UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Arena.
The next order of business for Cullen Neal is trying to persuade sophomore-to-be Cleveland “Pancake” Thomas to let him wear the No. 1 jersey Neal donned for the Eldorado Eagles. If Thomas declines, however, Cullen Neal said he’d wear the No. 30 jersey that his mom, Janet, wore when she played in high school. His dad’s No. 10 is already taken by senior-to-be and defending Mountain West Player of the Year Kendall Williams.
Cullen Neal already frequently practices with Lobos players and works out with them.
“I’ve already been family with these guys for years,” Cullen Neal said. “Now I can finally say I’m their teammate. But the family part was already there.”