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Leaving death threats behind, Cullen Neal finds his ‘happy place’ at Ole Miss

Cullen Neal’s first year at Ole Miss hasn’t been quite what he expected, but he knows things could be worse.

Neal is the Rebels’ fourth-leading scorer at 9.4 points per game, but it’s the fewest he’s averaged since his freshman season as he fills a role that’s still taking some getting used to. Neal is one of Ole Miss’ first options off the bench after starting all 31 games he played at the point last season at New Mexico.

Yet Neal is no longer the primary ball handler on his team.

Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy decided early in the season the best way to build the offense around double-double machine Sebastian Saiz was to use Neal’s shooting ability off the ball and leave a majority of the facilitating to the more athletic Deandre Burnett and Breein Tyree.

“His role has obviously changed throughout the course of the year,” Kennedy says.

It’s helped Neal find a more consistent touch from long range with his team-best 41-percent clip from 3-point range the highest of his career, but if he doesn’t have a clean look, his natural instinct kicks in to find a teammate that does. He’s dished out 74 assists, trailing only Burnett for the team lead, while cutting his turnovers down to 1.7 a game.

“I honestly couldn’t remember the last time I played off the ball,” Neal says. “I think (Kennedy) is just trying to play me wherever they need me at, whatever he finds to be necessary to be honest.”

Neal’s primary focus now is playing his best basketball for an Ole Miss team that needs it from everybody if the Rebels want to avoid missing out on the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year. Ole Miss finished the regular season tied for fifth in the Southeastern Conference and will be the No. 6 seed when it opens the SEC Tournament against either Auburn or Missouri late Thursday night in Nashville, Tennessee.

Ole Miss has 18 wins, 10 those coming against league opponents, but Saturday’s win over South Carolina was just the Rebels’ second top-50 RPI victory and their first over a team that’s a lock to dance. Ole Miss likely has to get the SEC’s automatic bid by repeating its 2013 run to the tournament championship in order to make the field of 68.

“We’re still fighting,” Neal says. “We’ve shown capabilities this year. We’ve just got to keep grinding. Who knows?”

Whether it’s the NCAAs or the NIT, Neal is relieved Ole Miss’ postseason destination is all he has to worry about when it comes to basketball.

‘I shouldn’t be going through this’

Neal doesn’t recall the specifics. All he remembers is the hurt.

Lying on his bed one night last season, Neal scrolled through his social media accounts. None of it was good, and the longer he looked, the worse it seemed to get.

Every mention of his name was accompanied with name-calling, curse words and even threats from some of his own fans. The vitriol got to a point where Neal couldn’t take it anymore.

“I was like, ‘Dang, what is going on?’ I shouldn’t be going through this,” Neal says. “I ended up throwing my phone off my bed.”

Neal was a constant object of criticism as the coach’s son at New Mexico, something he and his father, Lobos head coach Craig Neal, knew would be part of the deal when the younger Neal was released from his scholarship to Saint Mary’s in 2013 and instead joined his dad at New Mexico once Craig took over for Steve Alford, who coached New Mexico for six seasons before taking the UCLA job.

Playing his prep ball less than 15 miles from New Mexico’s campus in Albuquerque, Cullen finished his career at Eldorado High with more than 2,300 points and helped guide the Eagles to a state championship as a junior. Cullen’s talent made him a top-100 national recruit, and he wasn’t shy about letting the opposition know it with a demonstrative-bordering-on-cocky style of play that Craig believes made his son a target for some of the locals from the start.

“You’ve got a lot of fans and a lot of boosters that had to watch him play high school basketball here and play against their son and be highly successful,” Craig says. “That develops jealousy, and it also develops a lot of animosity before he even gets to playing for us. They had never had anything like that here in this state or this university.”

Cullen averaged 20.1 minutes and started three games as a freshman in helping the Lobos win the Mountain West Tournament championship and automatically qualify for the NCAA Tournament in 2014. He averaged 17 points in the first three games of his sophomore season before an ankle injury against Boston College ended his season as New Mexico stumbled to a 15-16 record.

Cullen became the Lobos’ full-time point guard last season, but New Mexico lost five of its last six games and missed out on the postseason for the second straight year. He averaged 12.3 points and 3.7 assists but turned it over nearly as much (3.3) while shooting just 35 percent from the field and 32.7 percent from the 3-point line — not nearly enough production to back up what some fans viewed as unfulfilled hype.

“I think a lot of it was people around here thought he was playing just because he was my son,” Craig says. “The expectations might’ve been too high. I really don’t know. I haven’t figured that out.”

Messages boards blew up. Talk radio piled on. Some fans even got Cullen’s cell phone number and bombarded him with harassing texts, forcing him to change his number multiple times. He deleted every social media account other than SnapChat, which he used only with close friends and family.

Cullen Neal, left, talks to his dad, New Mexico head coach Craig Neal, near the sidelines at the Pit in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Dec. 19, 2015. Cullen played for his father for three seasons before the pressure and criticism became “too much,” Cullen says. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

But neither Cullen nor Craig envisioned the criticism getting to the point it did last February when Craig claimed in a press conference that threats had been made against his son’s life. Craig didn’t inform local law enforcement of any death threats, according to the Albuquerque Journal, but New Mexico athletic director Paul Krebs issued a statement acknowledging the school was looking into an incident involving threats against Cullen.

Cullen rarely went out in public for fear of what might happen, making his social life virtually non-existent. He was a prisoner of an environment that was becoming unbearably toxic.

“It’s not fair that you get threats and you get death threats,” Craig said then. “It’s not right.”

Cullen didn’t go into details when recently asked about specific threats he received while at New Mexico but called them “unnecessary,” adding it was “stuff that shouldn’t have been said and stuff that honestly I don’t know why people would say it.”

Cullen needed a change, and Craig encouraged it. Last March, Cullen made the difficult but necessary decision to transfer out of his father’s program.

“It’s still emotional because I left my dad,” Cullen says. “People ask me all the time, ‘You left your dad? Why would you do that?’ I just tell them under certain circumstances it was the best move for everybody at the time.”

Fresh start

Cullen got his degree in personal communications in three years, making him immediately eligible at his next school as a graduate transfer. With two years left (he applied for a medical hardship after the ankle injury his sophomore season and got that year of eligibility back), Cullen was in high demand.

He visited Texas A&M and was also heavily courted by Ohio State and Iowa, but a lengthy friendship between Craig and Kennedy helped put Ole Miss over the top. Kennedy has known Craig since the latter hosted Kennedy on a recruiting visit at Georgia Tech three decades ago, and with the Rebels needing a point guard after Stefan Moody’s departure, Cullen’s availability came at the perfect time.

“I’m just a big relationship guy, so it’s whenever I feel like I can trust a person,” Cullen says. “My dad knew AK for many, many years, and I thought I could trust AK, so that was the big thing.”

Running the point hasn’t worked out, but there have been times when Cullen has shown what he’s still capable of with the ball in his hands. He scored a season-high 21 points in a two-point win over UMass, he had 20 points and knocked down the go-ahead 3-pointer to cap Ole Miss’ rally from 23 points down in the second half against Auburn on Feb. 11, and he drained a corner 3 late in the second half of Saturday’s five-point win to push Ole Miss’ lead back to three possessions after South Carolina stormed back from a 21-point deficit in the final 16 minutes to get close.

Ole Miss vs. LSU at The Pavilion at Ole Miss, in Oxford, Miss. on Tuesday, February 14, 2017. (Bruce Newman, Oxford Eagle via AP)

“Cullen has had big moments for us, and my hope is that he’ll have big moments for us as this season comes to a close,” Kennedy said.

Cullen can’t help himself in some of these moments. He struts down the court, pumps his fist, cracks smiles and celebrates with teammates when the time calls for it, releasing that unbridled passion for the game that he rarely felt comfortable enough to display the last three years.

“Sometimes I don’t feel like I’m quite still myself, but I’m trying to get back to that fun, emotional guy,” Cullen says.

Cullen has since rejoined Facebook and Instagram so he can stay connected with family, friends and teammates, he says. He isn’t immune to the occasional gripes from Ole Miss fans, but he’s like the rest of his teammates in that regard.

“There’s always criticism,” he says.

But there’s a sense of normalcy for Cullen at Ole Miss, which is really all he and his family wanted. It’s a typical college experience that wasn’t possible when he was the coach’s son.

“The biggest thing it’s been with me is I couldn’t care less about basketball,” Craig says. “All I want him to do is be a happy kid. If I can get my son back to where he was when he was in high school during his freshman year, that’s all I really care about it.”

Slowly but surely, Cullen is getting there.

“I’m enjoying my time here,” Cullen says. “I tell people Ole Miss is perfect for me because I can just have fun and be a normal person.

“It’s my happy place.”