Ohio State basketball is coming off an arduous but necessary rebuilding season. The Buckeyes missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the 2007-08 season, but are slated to return all 10 players that saw significant action in 2015-16.
Having said that, Ohio State would surely welcome any potential upgrades from outside of the program, and it appears Thad Matta has caught the interest of a notable graduate transfer.
New Mexico transfer Cullen Neal will visit Ohio State the third week of April.— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanESPN) March 28, 2016
Neal, who is the son of New Mexico coach Craig Neal, averaged 12.3 points, 3.7 assists, 2.8 rebounds, and 3.3 turnovers in just over 30 minutes per game for the Lobos in 2015-16. The 6'5, 195-pound Neal also averaged 3.8 free throws per game (74 percent conversion rate) and 5.2 3-point attempts per game (made 33 percent). Neal is a unique transfer case for four reasons.
Neal has two seasons of eligibility remaining
Neal, who will graduate from New Mexico this spring, received a medical hardship waiver for the 2014-15 campaign -- which would have been his sophomore season -- after he missed the Lobos' final 28 games with an ankle injury. Neal is eligible for two more seasons because he is going to acquire his undergraduate degree shortly and because he's only played two years of college ball.
Ohio State is in a scholarship crunch
When factoring in Ohio State's 10 returning players and two incoming freshmen (Derek Funderburk, Micah Potter), the Buckeyes only have one open scholarship for the 2016-17 season, and that scholarship was reportedly offered to 6-7 Westerville South senior Andre Wesson on March 22.
Now, offering a scholarship to a transfer is a far leap from squiring a transfer around campus, but Ohio State's interest in Neal is certainly noteworthy. Also, with Marc Loving penciled in as the only senior next winter, inserting Neal onto the roster for two seasons would limit the Buckeyes' flexibility in the 2017 class, with collateral damage potentially coming in the form of waning interest from four-star guard Markell Johnson, a Cleveland-area product and a prime Ohio State target.
Of course, a scholarship could open up if Trevor Thompson, currently testing the evaluation waters, hires an agent and makes himself eligible for the NBA Draft, or if another member of the roster declared for the draft or transferred.
Neal is a loose fit for what the Buckeyes need
Neal's usage rate of 20.6 percent ranked second on New Mexico and would've been fourth on Ohio State behind JaQuan Lyle, Loving, and Jae'Sean Tate, so the Buckeyes -- in need of a secondary ball handler and another legitimate scoring option -- would likely benefit from a player like Neal: someone accustomed to a heavy playmaking and decision-making load offensively.
There are two clear drawbacks to Neal's game, the first of which is his lack of proficiency from the 3-point line. But, while Neal's 33 percent mark from 3 isn't great, it would've been the fourth-best mark on Ohio State, which ranked 11th out of 14 Big Ten teams in 3-point shooting. As a freshman, Neal converted nearly 36 percent of the 3.4 triples he hoisted each game, so he is capable of a better showing beyond the arc and would certainly benefit from Lyle's ingenuity at the point.
Neal also has a penchant for turnovers, notching nearly as many turnovers (101) as assists (114) in 2015-16. The Buckeyes' assist-to-turnover ratio of .88 was 13th in the Big Ten this past season.
Some of New Mexico's fans could not stand Neal
Coaches' sons are often easy targets of vitriol from fan bases, but the criticism Neal received appeared to be particularly unsavory and borderline dangerous. In February, Craig Neal revealed that Cullen had been the target of "excessive harassment and even threats." Neal was forced to change his phone number twice and shut down his social media accounts.
"Walk in his shoes for one day," Craig Neal said on Feb. 12. "It's not fair that you get threats and death threats. It's not right."
SB Nation's Mountain West Connection penned a detailed post about the "black eye" Neal's transfer has left on New Mexico's fan base.
Neal, who reportedly drew interest from other major programs like Butler, Purdue, Xavier, and Utah, has already visited Mississippi and Texas A&M.