NORMAN — Calvin Newell's transfer increased Tyler Neal's playing time, and the Oklahoma sophomore's time where he's most comfortable: on the perimeter.
Neal is coming off a career-high 18–point performance against Arkansas featuring an expanded role playing mostly on the perimeter.
“That game really helped my confidence,” said Neal, whose 7-1 team plays Houston Saturday night in the All-College Classic at Chesapeake Energy Arena. “Not that my teammates and coaches didn't think I couldn't do that before. But it reinforced that and instilled a sense of trust in me... Coach (Lon) Kruger giving me the green light gives me a lot of confidence.”
Neal inherited most of the minutes available after Newell's transfer to Central Florida five games into this season.
With Newell on the OU roster, Neal averaged 5 points and 14 minutes.
Without Newell, Neal averages 10.2 points and 22 minutes in three games.
He drained four 3-pointers against Arkansas. He's second on the team with a dozen 3-pointers, shooting 48 percent beyond the arc. Kruger said Neal will be on the perimeter an average of three out of four possessions.
“Our challenge with Tyler is to expect more, do more, invest, put time in,” Kruger said. “Tyler has worked hard. He's put in a lot of time during practice and after practice. Your confidence goes up when you work hard.”
Junior Steven Pledger and Neal form a potent 3-point duo. The Sooners are one of the top 3-point shooting teams in the country in large part because Pledger and Neal's combined 47.5 percent beyond the arc.
“He can make shots but Tyler also has improved his ball handling,” Pledger said. “He can jump. He's one of the strongest guys on the team. When he first got here he was passive. Now he has the mindset to be more aggressive, which has really helped us.”
Neal, The Oklahoman's 2010 Player of the Year at Putnam City West, has improved every aspect of his game.
“He's just scratching the surface,” Kruger said. “He's making shots right now but in time he'll be able to put it on the floor a little more, attack a little more. He's a smart player who can create shots for others. .... He just needs to keep growing his game.”
That includes being more of a factor on the defensive end.
“He has good size, good anticipation,” Kruger said. “You don't have to be the quickest guy. But at 6-7, you're long and rangy. You can take angles and do things to still get the job done, especially with anticipation.”
Said Neal, “Last year I could jump but (I) had slow feet. Having quick feet is a big part of defense. It's also the mental part, knowing an opposing player's strengths. Having athleticism can cover up passing lanes but I'd like to get to where athleticism is icing on the cake.”
Neal's playing time fluctuated as a freshman under former coach Jeff Capel. Now, as his role expands so will his impact on an OU team off to its second best start in eight seasons.
“I'm always in his ear to be more aggressive because he has crazy athleticism,” said teammate Romero Osby. “That surprises some people. He doesn't even know how explosive he is. He's not anywhere close to tapping his potential, yet. He could be really, really good.”