CHARLESTON, S.C. – Craig Neal knows it.
Cullen Neal knows it.
Fans know it.
They all know the past three games have been a struggle for the 6-foot-4 freshman guard from Eldorado High School who, by the way, happens to be son of the first-year head coach of the No. 19 New Mexico Lobos, who were picked to win the Mountain West Conference.
But the question posed by numerous Lobo fans to Albuquerque sports talk radio shows, on social media or to the Journal in the past week is why is young Neal playing so many minutes if he’s yet to find his comfort zone on the court?
“It’s definitely been the biggest topic this week, and I’d say it’s been 50-50,” David Jubb, host of the afternoon show on KNML, 610 AM.
“Half the people want Cullen not to play, and half, while they aren’t saying they think he’s played well, they’re pretty understanding that it’s only been three or four games and jumping on him this early is probably a little unfair.”
Bob Brown, host of “The Locker Room” on 101.7 FM, said Cullen Neal has been the top topic on his show, as well.
“They want to talk about Cullen and the Lobos,” Brown said. “And it’s probably pretty even on both sides of the fence, I’d say, about his playing time.”
Asked whether his son was playing too many minutes after the 3-1 Lobos lost 81-65 to Massachusetts in the Charleston Classic semifinals Friday, Craig Neal responded: “I don’t think I’m concerned about that.”
In that game, Cullen Neal had six turnovers, all in the first half.
“I thought he played well when he first got in there,” the head coach said. “I think he just had three bad ones in a row. The pressure bothered him. We’ve always had two ballhandlers in, so he’s got to learn. And hopefully he’ll get better at it.”
Craig Neal is also holding steadfast that Cullen’s playing time is not impacted by the familial relationship.
“I have 14 sons out there,” Craig Neal said.
UNM’s offense, one which has morphed into a high-paced, get-out-and-run system, requires, in the coaching staff’s mind, two ballhandlers on the floor at all times. The issue with the Lobos is they have only three players the coaching staff trusts at the moment to handle the ball on a consistent basis. One is Neal, along with starters Kendall Williams and Hugh Greenwood.
Neither Deshawn Delaney, a junior college All-American who comes off the bench for the Lobos, nor starter Cleveland “Pancake” Thomas, has yet demonstrated to coaches in practice he can handle primary ball-handling duties consistently.
Cullen Neal has 16 turnovers in four games – 10 of which came in extended first-half minutes against Charleston Southern and UMass while filling in for Greenwood who got into early first-half foul trouble in both games.
UMass coach Derek Kellogg said he knows Cullen Neal is a freshman ballhandler, so he made it a point of emphasis to amp up the defensive pressure on him Friday.
“Anytime we play against freshmen, especially guards, we try to go at those guys a little bit,” Kellogg said.
Neal’s play, however, may not have negatively affected the team as much as some fans think.
In his six-turnover game against Charleston Southern, he also had seven assists and 11 points.
The Lobos beat UAB on Thursday when Neal shot 0-for-8 from the floor – he’s just 6-of-26 on the season for a 23.1 percent clip – but the Lobos were dead even in scoring in his 20 minutes played that game.
Friday when Neal had six first-half turnovers, UMass outscored UNM by only two points. The Minutemen’s 14-0 scoring run started when he went back to the bench with the Lobos leading 27-22.
Still, there is no denying his stat line hasn’t been what he, Lobo fans or the Lobo coaching staff had expected from the player who was ranked by ESPN as a top-100 recruit in the nation after his senior season.
And as long as Neal struggles on the floor while playing for his dad, the fans will keep talking.
“It’s the Lobos,” Brown said. “People always want to talk about what’s going on with the Lobos, which is probably part of why it got to be so big this week.”