Well, it could be a lot worse.
As the Lobos men’s basketball team continues to labor through early season growing pains that come with losing a 7-foot center they didn’t prepare to play without for another season and having nine new players on the roster, the team got some good news Wednesday morning.
An MRI on the right ankle of injured sophomore point guard Cullen Neal revealed ligament damage, but not enough that would require surgery, Lobos coach Craig Neal told the Journal on Wednesday morning.
The severe ankle sprain, suffered at the 17:11 mark of the second half of last week’s loss to Boston College in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, could keep the Eldorado High graduate out between three and five weeks, the coach said.
The best-case scenario could have the team’s leading scorer back in the lineup by early- to mid-December. The worst-case scenario, especially with any setbacks in the rehabilitation, could mean Cullen Neal isn’t ready to return until after the start of Mountain West Conference play. (UNM opens league play at home Dec. 31 against Fresno State.)
Should Cullen Neal still not be 100 percent into January, the team may consider redshirting him for the season.
If he were to redshirt, it would be one year after he took most of nonconference play to get healthy from his emergency appendectomy in Australia in August 2013. That surgery and rehab led to his losing 20 pounds off an already thin frame for a player listed at 6-foot-5.
Regardless of when he returns to the roster, it’s clear the Lobos (3-2) have to figure something out on offense in Neal’s absence.
Neal was leading the team in scoring (17.5 points per game through three games, though he averaged 24.5 per game in the two full games he played) when he went down. He had 11 assists and seven turnovers.
But his play at the primary point guard position, allowing senior Hugh Greenwood to flourish in an off-the-ball scoring role for the first time in his four seasons at UNM, were as important as any of Neal’s statistics.
Greenwood scored 11 points in the first eight minutes of the Boston College game with Neal was on the point.
UNM has played 103 minutes with Neal, 97 without him, offering an almost 50/50 split to evaluate his impact on the team’s first five games.
The post-Cullen numbers don’t paint a pretty picture for the team as a whole or for Greenwood, in particular.
Greenwood, the 6-3 senior from Australia who is the unquestioned leader on the roster, has tried desperately to score for the team when others simply haven’t stepped up to do so in the wake of Neal’s injury.
“We’re losing a 20-point (per game) scorer,” coach Neal said Sunday in explaining how the team is different since the injury. “We’re losing a guy that played point guard for us. That hurts because Hugh puts a lot of pressure on himself to make a lot of things happen without Cullen in the game.”
With Cullen Neal, UNM’s offense had scored 180 points (1.75 per minute), was shooting 45.2 percent (35.7 percent from 3-point range), had 76 free-throw attempts and an assist-to-turnover ratio of 0.97 (34 assists, 35 turnovers).
Since the injury, the team has scored just 151 points (1.56 per minute), shot 41.8 percent (25.0 percent from 3-point range), attempted 58 free throws and has an assist-to-turnover ration of 0.78.
Greenwood has not only seen his shooting percentage drop since the injury (40.0 percent to 28.6), but has seen his rebounds drop (17 before injury, seven since) and his assist-to-turnover ratio, a longtime calling card of the sure-handed Aussie, has plummeted from 5.0 (10 assists, two turnovers) to 1.38 (11 assists, eight turnovers).
EDWARDS OUT, TOO: The player who replaced Cullen Neal in the starting lineup in Puerto Rico, 6-6 junior guard Arthur Edwards, will be out four to six weeks after dislocating a finger on his right hand, with the bone puncturing the skin.
When the team returned from Puerto Rico early Tuesday morning, Edwards was re-evaluated and it was revealed there is a small fracture at the end of the bone. His finger is in a splint, and he cannot use the hand while he is out.
X GETS THE START: Craig Neal said 6-4 freshman guard Xavier Adams is expected to get the start in Sunday’s game in the Pit against the University of Southern California. Adams has played 42 minutes this season, averaging 2.2 points, 1.4 rebounds and has a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio in limited action.
USING THE WALK-ON: Walk-on Tim Jacobs, a 6-foot point guard who averaged 14.3 points and 3.6 assists at Cochise (Ariz.) College last season, could see about 20 minutes per game running the point in an effort to keep Greenwood in that off-ball, shooting guard role during longer stretches of the game, Craig Neal said.
Jacobs, a Las Cruces native who led Oñate High School to the 2011 Class 5A Championship in the Pit, has appeared in three games for a total of 13 minutes. He’s scored two points with two assists and one turnover.