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February 28, 2014

Neal's family tree pointed to senior success

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As with most things, we must start with the father.

Don Neal first started playing college ball at Purdue but transferred after his freshman season to Olivet Nazarene in Bourbonnais, Ill. There he became one of the Tigers' most prolific scorers and rebounders in the school's history.

In just three years, he scored 1,329 points, and his 761 boards rank ninth all-time at the school. When his career ended, it didn't end his affair with the game. The game remains.

Don taught it to his sons, the first of whom was Drew. Nearly 30 years after Don finished hooping at Olivet Nazarene, Drew proved to be just as good -- if not better -- than his old man while wearing the same purple and gold colors.

From 1997-2000, Drew scored 1,575 points, made 594 buckets and pulled down 935 boards. Each of those numbers ranks him among the top 15 in each category. As a senior, he led the Tigers to the NAIA Final Four.

In the opening round of the NAIA tourney, Olivet Nazarene upset a good Columbia College team 62-59 in Tulsa. Drew scored 14 points, grabbed nine boards and blocked two shots in the game.

"It's a really strong sense of accomplishment," Drew said. "We had a great senior class that season."

Drew's youngest brother, Tyler Neal, sat in the stands at Convention Center Arena that day.


Neal first picked up a basketball when was 4 years old, and he hasn't put it down since.

Basketball was his love, just as it was the sporting love of Don and Drew. Of course there were other sports he could play, other sports he could've probably excelled at. But he wanted to do what his brothers and father had done.

So he kept practicing with his father and brother. He shot on a Little Tikes goal at home, and as he grew, so did the goals he practiced on, playing in church leagues and summer leagues. Sometimes the teams he played on were coached by Don.

By the time Neal enrolled in high school at Putnam City West, he was already standing well over 6-feet tall, and he had a teammate, Amric Fields, who also stood well over 6-feet tall. It didn't take long for either of them to recognize what they had.

"It's not every day, especially in high school, that you have two guys who are 6-6 or taller as sophomores," Neal said. "We kind of realized we had a chance to have some good high school teams."

Together, Neal and Fields learned to do what no other Patriot team had done since the late 1970s -- get back to the state tournament.

As a senior at Putnam City West, Neal averaged 18.2 points, 8.9 boards, two blocks and two steals a game. Throw in the fact that he shot 42.1 percent from beyond the arc, and 55.7 percent from the floor and was a near 80-percent free throw shooter, and it's easy to imagine Neal leading Putnam City West to a state title.

But that wasn't to be.

A magnificent season by Patriot standards ended in the state semifinals but not before Neal's Putnam City West squad won a school record 22 games. Right about then the accolades began rolling in for the 6-foot-6 kid from Bethany.

He was named Gatorade Player of the Year. He was named as the state's player of the year by the Oklahoma Coaches Association and his hometown newspaper.

He received offers from schools to play college ball, but none of them were the right schools. Not to Neal.

"We had a four-inch stack of letters that were never opened, and it's because they were not from the University of Oklahoma," Don said.

"My advice to Tyler was to shoot for the moon," Drew said.

Don didn't pressure Neal to pursue other schools. He believed his son was good enough to play at Oklahoma, and supported his decision to wait on former Sooner coach Jeff Capel.

Perhaps it was because Neal didn't dominate the Amateur Athletic Union circuit. After all, he only played two summers with Oklahoma's most well-known AAU team Athletes First. Or maybe it's because Capel wanted -- and could get -- McDonald's All-Americans.

Whatever the reason, OU didn't offer Neal a scholarship until the spring of his senior year. It happened late, but it happened all the same.

"I'm glad it worked out because that's the scholarship I was waiting for," Neal said. "I'm happy it ended up the way it did."

Then the work began.


Neal played in 26 games, starting six, as a freshman on Capel's 2010-11 team. But he shot poorly from the 3-point line (28.2 percent) and below average from the floor (42.7 percent).

On a team that finished 14-18, he averaged only 4.2 points and 2.3 boards per game.

From there, things bettered for the team but seemed to worsen for Neal. His scoring average fell to 4.0 points as a sophomore and plummeted to 1.1 points as a junior.

While OU coach Lon Kruger was rebuilding the Sooner men's basketball program into a conference contender and NCAA tournament team, Neal continued to play poorly when he got minutes, which were also drying up.

His attitude was great, and his energy during practice was good. But something wasn't clicking on the court for him.

With his final season of college basketball beginning last November, something needed to change. And it did.

This year was his and Cameron Clark's year. This year they are the only two seniors on a team brimming with talent and near empty on experience.

This year they are the only two men remaining from a freshman class that once consisted of themselves, T.J. Taylor and Abdi Ahmed.

Early this season, it became clear Clark was going to be asked to lead the first unit. Neal would have to lead the second.

After never averaging more than 9.3 points per game in a season, Clark became one of the Sooners two best scorers. Neal has come off the bench consistently and provided the Sooners with a stretch forward who can knock down 3-pointers in tight games and shoot well from the foul line.

He's known he could play this way since he first donned an OU jersey, but some things have to come in their own time.

"I love the senior leadership I've seen from him coming off the bench," Drew said.

Now, averaging career bests for points (6.7) and boards (3.3) he's heading into the last two home games of his career. There's the Big 12 tourney after that. Then the NCAA tourney. Then who knows?

Maybe he'll get to find out how his brother felt on that March day 14 years ago when he led his team to an opening round win in the biggest tournament of his life. If he does, there's little doubt his father and brother will be there to see it.

Oklahoma NEWS


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