Cullen Neal is just another player.
For his sake and everyone’s, remember that.
Worth remembering as well, with no room for doubt, was the New Mexico Lobos’ 80-78 comeback victory over Boise State on Wednesday night at the Pit.
Front and center, as usual, were shooting guard Elijah Brown and forward Tim Williams, who scored 17 of the 19.
Not a factor at all was Neal, the Lobos’ starting point guard, who had been the big story for the previous week – not because of what he had done on the court but because of what was happening to him away from it: trash talk and unspecified threats coming his way via cell phone and social media.
Wednesday, Neal had an excellent first half: eight points, two assists, three steals, just one turnover.
He had a horrid second half: No points, no assists, some bad defense, three turnovers in eight minutes.
Neal, the son of head coach Craig Neal, watched those final six minutes from the bench.
What happens with Cullen Neal going forward? In the glow of Wednesday’s remarkable rally, that’s a question for later.
But in terms of a fan and media attitude adjustment, maybe this will help.
Try thinking of the New Mexico Lobos’ sophomore point guard not as Cullen Neal, the UNM coach’s son, but as a kid named Neal Cullen.
If you think he needs a back story, we can make him the great grandson of the late TV game-show host Bill Cullen. Everybody liked Bill Cullen, so that’s a plus.
So, then. We’ve got Neal Cullen, this 6-foot-5 kid who scored six trillion points at Albuquerque’s Eldorado High School. He then signed a letter of intent to play at St. Mary’s College, which under coach Randy Bennett has an excellent men’s basketball program.
Then, for reasons not related to a relative, young Mr. Cullen chose instead to attend his hometown school. Bennett released him from his obligation to St. Mary’s, just because.
As a freshman, Cullen was the fourth-leading scorer on a New Mexico team that went 27-7, won the Mountain West Conference tournament and made the NCAA Tournament.
His true sophomore season ended just three games in with a high ankle sprain. The 2014-15 Lobos went 15-16, 7-11 in league play, and clearly missed the outside shooting he likely would have provided.
He was granted an NCAA medical redshirt year and returned this season once again. Through the Lobos’ first 25 games, entering Wednesday’s game against Boise State at the Pit, he has struggled with that outside shot, fouled too often and been prone to turnovers.
Turnovers, fouls and shooting percentage aside, not everyone has taken a liking to the kid. He tends to over-emote on the court, questioning almost every call – a tendency greatly toned down from his high school days, but not eliminated.
There are those who think he shouldn’t be starting, some who think he shouldn’t even get off the bench.
Still, young Neal Cullen – an honor student with a solid future, regardless of how basketball fits into it – is able to enjoy life off the court. He has a Facebook page, a Twitter feed, Instagram, Snapchat, etc., etc., like virtually all of his peers. He has the same cell number he had back in high school.
That, though, is the life and college basketball career of Neal Cullen, the great grandson of a game-show host.
For Cullen Neal, son of his college coach, it’s a different and sometimes disturbing story.
That story took another turn Wednesday when walk-on point guard Tim Jacobs (no points, but no turnovers, a key steal and two assists) played those final six minutes.
So, why have I made this column about Cullen Neal, when he played no role in a remarkable New Mexico victory? It was a pre-deadline decision, and I’m sticking to it. He has been the story, like it or not, for the wrong reasons.
Of course, stories are made to be rewritten.