Erick Neal’s Passing Could Be the Key for UT-Arlington in Sun Belt

College Park Center photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

He’s UT-Arlington’s all-time leader in assists, he’s in the top five nationally for the stat and he could be the x-factor for a Mavericks berth in March Madness.

Erick Neal is all those things, but only recently put himself into the limelight. After having two straight seasons with around six assists a game, the senior has added two more to average 8.1 per game and rank third nationally.

The guard’s not alone in passing the ball, as he’s helping his team average 16.6 assists per game, which is tied for 44th in the nation. As the team’s point guard, he’s proven himself as someone who can both dish the ball or pull up and shoot when needed.

It’s not just the stats with Neal though, as he is a legitimately fun player to watch. A lot of his strongest pass plays come from being able to draw defenders on the dribble, creating open lanes for his teammates to make plays.

On top of that, there is a legitimate flare in his passing. With the amount of no-look and other flashy passes, you would have thought he was in an AND-1 Mixtape.

His teammates are also noticing his spectacular passes and court vision.

“Erick definitely has a special talent for seeing things before they happen and getting people the ball where they need it to be,” said junior guard Nathan Hawkins to the Fort Worth Star Telegram last season.

“He’s one of the few people I’ve seen with a talent on his level,” Hawkins continued. “It’s amazing that he can set people up the way he does, and when he does, we’re tough to beat.”

Neal is also the second best scorer on the team (14.1 points per game) behind guard Kevin Hervey’s 21.2 points per game. With a combo like that where either player can go off, you have a legitimate case for one of the most underrated offenses in the Sun Belt.

To take advantage of their upperclassmen players, the Mavericks have their playoff destiny in their hands at this point. Their non-conference play was impressive, as they nearly beat then-no.25 Alabama on Nov. 21, 2017 and hung tough against then-no. 25 Creighton on Dec. 17 2017.

After dropping their first two, UT-Arlington now has 13 conference games to fight for the conference tournament championship and prove they can compete with a dangerous Louisiana Lafayette team, along with Texas State and Georgia Southern.

In UTA’s Sun Belt losses so far, Appalachian State and Coastal Carolina were able to minimize Neal’s impact by limiting his assists. He had three and six assists respectively, and also had more turnovers than assists (four to three) against App State.

It’s no secret that Neal’s effective passing is one of the key parts of the Mavericks offense. UTA will just have to adjust like they did in their last two, in which Hervey got in on the passing and had two straight three assist games.

Neal will be able to thrive if Hervey can continue passing the ball, as it will set up 3-point opportunities for him and also allow the pair to spread the ball more to their teammates. While the Mavericks have four players scoring in double-digits per game, finding a place for the bench to take over games will be important in the postseason.

The Mavericks have not been in the NCAA tournament since their lone appearance in 2008. With Hervey and Neal combined with the rebounding of Johnny Hamilton, this team could be poised to make a run in a Sun Belt that is up in the air this year.

UTA head coach Scott Cross said to the Star-Telegram has had just one philosophy to follow with Neal since before last year’s NIT. The phrase rings true still today.

“As Erick goes, we go.”

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