Just a week ago the Cincinnati Bearcats had a puzzle to solve. Although they were clearly hard at work reconstructing the roster, they were still looking at a team without a great deal of depth in the backcourt. That has all changed, starting with Jarron Cumberland’s return, Mika Adams-Woods’ commitment and now Chris McNeal’s addition via transfer.
McNeal’s career to this point has been a moving target, with stops at Western Kentucky, New Mexico and Tennessee Tech, where he never even played because of the NCAA’s transfer rules. He will be able to get right to work this year as a graduate transfer and that obviously means he can make an immediate impact. But what exactly could that impact look like?
A 6’1” guard who has played nearly 1,800 minutes of college basketball in his career, McNeal is very clearly a response to UC’s point guard conundrum. Both as a Hilltopper and a Lobo, McNeal’s greatest strength was passing the ball. He produced a combined assist rate of 21.7 percent in two total seasons which just so happens to match the mark Justin Jenifer tallied as a starter last year for the Bearcats. McNeal’s play-making is hurt a bit by too many lapses in ball security, as his career turnover rate of 20.1 percent is higher than all but one player to log at least 10 minutes for the Bearcats last season. However, there is good news on that front, as that rate went from 24.4 percent with Western Kentucky to 17 percent with New Mexico. Even though he hasn’t played in more than a year, that type of improvement is a positive sign.
When he’s not creating for others, McNeal will still need to be able to contribute points of his own. Although he averaged 15.9 points per 40 minutes with New Mexico during the 2017-18 season, his efficiency has not always been ideal. He had an 11.6 player efficiency rating that season and shot just 37.2 percent from the floor, including a 31.5 percent mark from three-point range. Having a guard without the ability to consistently knock down jumpers could be a problem, but the hope is that he will make progress on this front as well, while displaying the distribution skills he has always possessed.
In terms of defense, it’s a good thing McNeal is joining the Bearcats now because he might not have had a chance when Mick Cronin was still the head coach and defense was everything. His career defensive rating sits at 110.8 and he hasn’t racked up tons of steals to counterbalance his struggles with defending opposing guards.
While there are clearly areas that McNeal will need to improve, his decision to transfer should still lead to a positive result for the Bearcats, especially in the backcourt. McNeal is familiar with being a key contributor, starting 47 of his 68 career games, and he can take some of the ball-handling and play-making pressure off of Cumberland. His addition further reinforces a backcourt that now has the defending American Athletic Conference Player of the Year, a versatile guard in Adams-Woods and guys like Keith Williams and Trevor Moore, who can contribute in the frontcourt as well. John Brannen will still have to figure out how to fit all the pieces together, but that’s much better than missing some.