In a prepared statement, the third-year UNM student who is expected to earn a communications degree in June, making him eligible to play immediately elsewhere, announced he enjoyed his time as a Lobo but it was time to pursue his basketball career with another team.
However, neither he nor the program will say why he made the decision.
“I grew up around the Lobo basketball program and thoroughly enjoyed playing here, especially being able to play in the famous PIT! (sic),” Cullen Neal said in the news release. “I was blessed by being a part of a Mountain West championship and participating in the NCAA Tournament my freshman season. I will forever be grateful for the opportunity to play for my father for two seasons and will miss that in the future. Leaving my teammates, coaches, and all the support staff weighs heavy on my heart. I will miss all of them. I consider Albuquerque my home, and I love the University of New Mexico. I want to thank our great Lobo fans who have encouraged me and supported our team.”
The statement said the guard has not yet decided where he will transfer to or why he decided to leave now after what has been a tumultuous three seasons with the program that involved plenty of in-house and outside drama centered on the father/son dynamic.
Fan criticism of the younger Neal came to the forefront last month when after a particularly bad pair of road losses at San Diego State and Utah State, he shot a combined 5-for-22 (0-for-7 from 3-point range) and five turnovers. Craig Neal indicated his son had been the target of harassment, even stating he had received “death threats” and had to shut down his Facebook and Twitter accounts and had twice this season changed his phone number.
UNM police later said they met with the Neals and death threats weren’t mentioned while the following day issued a statement that the Neal’s statements to media that included the term death threats, were consistent with what they reported to police. The Neals, meanwhile, have declined to speak to the media since then about the alleged threats.
Monday’s statement about the transfer indicated the Neals would not talk to the media about the matter, though did do a Sunday night interview with ESPN. The Journal requested to talk with both, anyway, and UNM spokesman Eugene Canal declined the request, reiterating that the Neals would not talk about the transfer decision or what it means for the future of the program to lose its starting point guard.
In the statement, however, Craig Neal said: “My wife and I love our son and respect and support his decision. We are very proud of the thoughtful and deliberative manner by which he came to his decision. As parents we could not be more proud or supportive of our son. Cullen’s next team will be getting an outstanding basketball player and an even better person.”
The Journal asked athletic director Paul Krebs how he felt the loss of a starting point guard and local high school star from the state’s most high profile program reflected on the department, its fan base or whether it had anything to do with the annual postseason job evaluation of Craig Neal that has yet to be conducted.
In an email reply, Krebs wrote, “While I don’t normally comment on student athlete transfers, I do understand this is not a normal circumstance. I wish Cullen Neal the best of luck as he seeks to continue his playing career at another University.”
Cullen Neal starred at Eldorado High School for four seasons before initially committing to Saint Mary’s College in California. Ultimately he decided to play for his father as a Lobo when Craig Neal was promoted from associate head coach to head coach in April 2014.
On Thursday in Las Vegas, Nev., after the Lobos quarterfinals loss to Nevada in the Mountain West Conference Tournament that ended the team’s season with a 17-15 record, the Journal asked Craig Neal about his son’s transfer possibilities.
“We haven’t talked about that,” Craig Neal said. “We’re worried about the season. We’re trying to go forward.”
Craig Neal later criticized a recent Journal article about former Lobo players, saying “I’ve never been in a town where you write about guys who leave the program and don’t want to be Lobos.”
Cullen Neal is the third Lobo to announce he will transfer from the program this academic year, joining 7-foot-1 freshman center Nikola Scekic, who departed the program in December to Hutchinson (Kansas) Community College and 6-10 forward J.J. N’Ganga, who didn’t play this season due to a lingering Achilles injury and hopes to play next season at a Division II program, according to Craig Neal.
Also, 6-9 junior forward Devon Williams, who was injured in November and had his college career ended, will not play for the Lobos next season, though may be a graduate assistant.
Those four scholarships are expected to be filled by incoming freshmen Damien Jefferson (East Chicago, Ind.) and Aher Uguak (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada) and junior college transfer Connor MacDougall (South Mountain CC in Phoenix). Last week, forward Keanu Pinder (Hutchinson CC), announced he was backing off his previous commitment to be a Lobo and opening up his recruitment from other schools.
UNM has one available scholarship to fill now and it is unclear yet if any other players will transfer.
With Cullen Neal’s departure, and that of walk-on senior Tim Jacobs, the roster for now is left with five guards: rising juniors Elijah Brown, Xavier Adams and Sam Logwood and rising sophomores Jordan Hunter and Anthony Mathis. Only Hunter is listed as a point guard.
Cullen Neal was UNM’s fourth leading scorer and first player to come off the bench on the 2014 team that won 27 games, won the MWC Tournament and went to the NCAA Tournament. He was injured midway through the third game of his second season in 2015, a high ankle sprain that left to his missing the season.
This season, Cullen Neal started 31 games, averaged 12.3 points, 3.7 assists and 3.3 turnovers per game.