Cullen Neal has played his last basketball game of the season.
The University of New Mexico sophomore guard on Saturday made it official, he will apply for a medical hardship waiver with the NCAA due to the lingering effects of a high ankle sprain suffered in the Lobos third game of the season on Nov. 20.
“He’s just not responding like we thought he would,” said Lobos head coach Craig Neal, who is also Cullen’s father. “He’s having a hard time jumping. I think it’s really tough for him. I know he’s emotional just because he wants to play with Hugh (Greenwood) and he wants to play with Deshawn (Delaney, UNM’s two seniors). But at the end of the day he’s got to make a decision for himself.”
Cullen Neal, the 6-foot-5 Eldorado High graduate who was began the season as the Lobos starting point guard, resumed basketball activities over the past week, but the partially torn tendons in his right ankle were clearly still unstable, according to UNM trainers and team doctors, who advised Neal and his family on multiple occasions since the injury, which was sustained in a loss to Boston College when the team was playing in Puerto Rico.
The NCAA is expected to make its decision to either grant or deny Cullen Neal’s medical hardship waiver, the official term for the more commonly used “medical redshirt,” by April. If granted, he will be eligible to play three more seasons for the Lobos.
“He’s got a lot of work to do to get healthy,” Craig Neal said.
Cullen Neal averaged 24.5 points per game in his first two starts of the season before getting hurt in the third game.
Entering Saturday’s game, his eight 3-pointers were still second most on the team behind only Greenwood. UNM has struggled mightily finding an outside shooter.
Per NCAA rules, had Cullen Neal played after the 15th game of the season, which is Tuesday at San Diego State, he wouldn’t have been able to pursue the waiver.
Cullen Neal remains very much involved with the Lobos practices and in games, where he sits near the coaching staff, something Craig Neal said won’t change.
“He’s been around our program and around how we’ve run our offense and around how we carry ourselves and the way we’re supposed to act since he was 7- or 8-years old at practices,” Craig Neal said. “When you see quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers and guys (like that) get hurt and don’t play, they have headsets on. Cullen knows our program and our plays better than anybody and he’s a good talker and he’s able to help the other guys.”
Craig Neal added as a coach, he wanted Cullen Neal back because he could help the team. But as a dad, “I think we all as parents want what’s best for our children.”