McNeal fights to the finish

Jason King
Yahoo! Sports

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Senior guard Jerel McNeal's 1,941 points and 285 steals rank first in Marquette history.

(Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Editor's note: Today, Yahoo! Sports begins a three-day series of stories looking at the players, coaches and teams to watch in the NCAA tournament. Monday's entry: Player to Watch Jerel McNeal.

MILWAUKEE – Sometimes, they surrounded him in the basement. Mostly, though, the fights took place in the backyard.

Jerel McNeal's high school-aged cousins made him promise to never snitch, to never tell his parents what occurred at those family gatherings, when the adults became too immersed in conversation to realize what was happening to their 10-year-old son just down the stairs or out the door.

"Every time they cornered me," McNeal says of his cousins, "I'd just get that bad feeling in my stomach. I'd think, 'Oh no, it's about to turn into one of those nights.' "

Usually they'd sock him in the abdomen or leave bruises on his arms. McNeal says he was punched in the head, too, and that it wasn't uncommon for his cousins to throw him to the ground and take turns kicking him until the tears began to flow.

Players to watch

Starting five
Starting five
Jerome Randle photo
Jerome Randle photo

Best shooter
Jerome Randle
CAL
With Stephen Curry, Jodie Meeks, Kyle McAlarney and Jack McClinton out of the tournament, the Bears' Randle gets the nod. He's shooting better than 50 percent from the field and better than 46 percent from 3-point distance.

Best rebounder
Blake Griffin
OKLAHOMA
Griffin can hurt you so many ways, literally, and is the nation's most dominant player. His physical play and toughness pay dividends on the glass. He averaged more than 14 boards a game and could be the story of tournament.

Best defender
Hasheem Thabeet
CONNECTICUT
No player can change the flow of a game faster than the 7-foot-3 shot-blocking machine from Tanzania. Knock the basketball novice for being one-dimensional at your own risk.

Best passer
Ty Lawson
NORTH CAROLINA
Lawson has come on strong in the latter part of the season, setting up his stable of talented teammates while showing an increased ability to score on his own. Will his injured toe be the Tar Heels' Achilles' heel?

Best dunker
Gerald Henderson
DUKE
The son of the former Boston Celtics standout by the same name has built his own resume with his thunderous tomahawk slams. Like his dad, the Blue Devils' doctor of dunkology seems to thrive in the spotlight.

Starting five
Starting five

Best interview
Terrence Williams
LOUISVILLE
Williams is as savvy with parts of speech as he is with skills on the court and that's saying something. Expect him to be on top of his game as the media opportunities multiply this month.

– Gerry Ahern

Who do you think are the top players in each of the above categories? Send your comments to Gerry Ahern

Nearly a decade later, McNeal is able to smile as he recalls the beatings. Now a standout guard at Marquette, he says being jumped by his cousins made him stronger, that the "hazing" made him a man.

"You can let people run over you throughout your whole life, or you can stand up for yourself," McNeal says. "One day I just decided I wasn't going to get beat up anymore.

"I decided to fight back."

For the next decade, whenever challenges presented themselves on the basketball court, McNeal relied on the same mantra.

First as a high school recruit who refused to give in when he was ignored by most major universities, next as a college star whose spirit was threatened by injuries and the loss of his head coach, and now as a senior leader attempting to rally his team for this week's NCAA tournament despite the absence of one of its most important players.

Marquette lost its final four regular-season games following a season-ending foot injury to point guard Dominic James. Suddenly a team that had legitimate aspirations of competing for the Big East title and earning a favorable spot in the NCAA bracket will take a No. 6 seed into Thursday's game against Utah State.

Morale on campus has dwindled. Television analysts say they'll be shocked if the Golden Eagles make it past the second round. During a recent conversation at Real Chili – a greasy spoon near campus – two men talked more about the draft stock of a few Marquette players rather than the upcoming tournament.

"Oh, believe me, I know what the word is," McNeal says, laughing. "People around here may be afraid to say it, but no one thinks we have a chance. Everyone thinks we're finished."

Marquette's all-time leading scorer, McNeal smiles and leans forward.

"That's a good spot to be in," he says. "There are some people who do better when everyone counts them out."

One of the most aggravating periods of Jerel McNeal's basketball career occurred in 2005, in the spring and summer before his senior season at Hillcrest High School in Chicago.

Nearly every day, McNeal would scan various college recruiting sites on the Internet and discover that players he'd competed against – players he'd whipped – were committing to top-25 programs while McNeal received minimal interest.

"Some of them I couldn't believe," McNeal said. "I'd think, 'So-and-so is going where? He's going to what school? I destroyed that dude!'

"It was a really a tough time for me. To put up the stat lines that I was putting up in an area like Chicago … I thought I should've been getting a lot more looks."

Tom Cappel, McNeal's high school coach, also had trouble figuring out why his star wasn't receiving more attention.

"He played in the top backcourt in all of Illinois," Cappel says. "I didn't go out and try to promote him or anything. He was so good that I figured people would find him. He was like a cat. He'd lull you to sleep because it looked like he wasn't playing hard and then – boom – he'd steal the ball and he'd be gone."

Still, as the recruitment process wore on, McNeal began to hear more and more of the same criticisms.

He struggles with his left hand, he doesn't shoot well enough from the outside. He's only 6-foot-2, not tall enough to be a two-guard at the next level.

McNeal's father, Edward, had sensed years ago that his son might not have the physical gifts of some of the players who compete for Division-I scholarships. He told him he'd have to work 10 times harder than everyone just to get a sniff.

"I never had to push him to the gym and I never had to tell him to work harder," Edward McNeal says. "He had that inner drive that you can't teach. For whatever reason, though, most of those college coaches thought he was [as] good as he was going to get as a high school senior.

"They thought he had reached his ceiling."

One who had a different opinion was then-Marquette coach Tom Crean, who saw McNeal at an AAU tournament in Kansas City when McNeal was just a sophomore. Within months, McNeal and his dad were making the 105-minute drive from Chicago to Milwaukee to watch the Golden Eagles in action.

When Dwyane Wade and Marquette defeated Cincinnati for the 2003 conference championship, McNeal was invited into the postgame locker room. A few years later, with only a handful of other Division-I programs such as Purdue and Dayton showing interest, McNeal signed with Marquette.

Shortly before his son moved into his dorm, Edward McNeal says Crean asked him if Jerel had any aspirations of playing in the NBA.

"I told him that was something every kid probably wanted to achieve," Edward said. "But then I said, 'Let's just see how he does at this level first.' "

Excited as he was to be at Marquette, McNeal's arrival hardly created much fanfare compared to fellow signees Wesley Matthews and Dominic James. Matthews, the son of former NBA standout Wes Matthews, was a local favorite who had been named Mr. Basketball in Wisconsin. James was No. 61 on Rivals.com's Top 100 list – way ahead of McNeal, who was No. 99.

"In the past, when people have talked about me, they've always said I was pretty good," McNeal says. "They always thought I was going to be a role player at the next level.

"They were entitled to their opinion. I never made statements about what people thought of me. I never responded to the criticism. I just used it as a mental game where I was trying to prove people wrong. That's the way I was taught.

"I've never been given anything. I've always had to go and take it."

That's exactly what McNeal has done during one of the best careers in Marquette history.

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Jerel McNeal, left, and Wesley Matthews celebrate after defeating Notre Dame.

(Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

As a freshman, McNeal played in every game and finished third on the team in scoring with 11.1 points a contest. He earned Big East Defensive Player of the Year honors during a sophomore season that was cut short by a hand injury suffered before the last regular-season game.

As a junior McNeal's work ethic became so strong that Crean had to quit scheduling individual workouts for him because he was already spending so much free time in the gym. Often criticized for his outside shooting, McNeal wouldn't leave until he made 250 shots per workout. This season he’s raised the bar to 500.

The extra work paid off. McNeal shot 28.3 percent from 3-point range as a freshman, 31.3 percent as a sophomore and 30.4 percent as a junior. This season he's shooting 40.2 percent from beyond the arc.

"Some guys go into the gym two or three days in a row and think they have it licked," Crean says, "You can't just say you want to get better. You have to be willing to put in the extra time. That's how Jerel has always separated himself."

McNeal is also Marquette's all-time leader in steals and is averaging 3.9 assists per game, a high number for a shooting guard.

"He should be a mid first-round pick at the very worst," Crean says. "He can play point guard or shooting guard and he can guard either position. He can do anything a team wants. You just don't find many guys that have so much wrapped up into one package."

About 11 months ago, there was a time when Jerel McNeal felt as if he couldn't open his front door without talking to a reporter. Television cameras followed him and his teammates around campus and, almost every day for two weeks, it seemed as if there was an article in Marquette's student newspaper about the Golden Eagles and their coach.

Or rather, their former coach.

Less than two weeks after Marquette's second-round loss to Stanford in the NCAA tournament, Crean shocked Marquette's fans and players by leaving after nine seasons for Indiana. Crean's decision was a jolt to the Golden Eagles – especially the rising seniors McNeal, Matthews and James.

"We all felt like we were handpicked," McNeal says. "We thought he brought us here to turn the program around. We were in the midst of doing that, and we felt like we were going to be so good this year. We all wanted to know, 'Why?' "

Frustrated as McNeal was, he said his emotions didn't linger very long. He said he took it upon himself to talk to Marquette's returning players about the effect Crean's departure could ultimately have on the program.

"Before our new coach was ever hired," McNeal says, "I told them, 'Guys, we're going to look back on this time and remember how much it brought us together. We have to lean on each other now more than ever.' "

Just like that, players began showing up in groups to lift weights, shoot baskets and do cardio work. No one was forcing them to do it but, with leaders such as McNeal, the Golden Eagles felt compelled to be there.

When Marquette promoted Buzz Williams, Crean's assistant, to head coach, he knew McNeal's presence would help ease the transition into his new job.

"[Jerel] has an old soul," Williams says. "When you talk to him it's like you're talking to a 35-year-old man. This morning I called him to the office, and I went right after him. I got on him about some stuff, and I had statistics to back it up. All he did was say, 'Yes sir, yes sir,' and he listened to everything I said.

"All the other stuff you think may drive him … I don't think that's the case. He doesn't care about the NBA right now. He doesn't care about stats or about proving people wrong. He just wants this team to win. His core values are as good as anyone I've ever coached."

“Some of our young guys are down. I'm trying to get them to realize that we competed – and almost beat – three of the nation's top-10 teams. I'm going to keep my head up and hope everyone else follows my lead.”

– Jerel McNeal

Now more than ever, Williams is hoping those values shine through as the Golden Eagles prepare for the NCAA tournament without James, who suffered a broken left foot during the early portions of a Feb. 25 loss to Connecticut.

Four days later the Golden Eagles nearly upset Big East champion Louisville before falling 62-58, and they led Pittsburgh with 11 minutes remaining but eventually collapsed during a 15-point road loss.

"Some of our young guys are down," McNeal says. "I'm trying to get them to realize that we competed – and almost beat – three of the nation's top-10 teams. I'm going to keep my head up and hope everyone else follows my lead."

With James out of the lineup, Marquette has turned to Ball State transfer Maurice Acker to man the point guard position. Ironically, Acker is McNeal's former Hillcrest High School teammate.

In the four games before James' injury, Acker averaged just 6.3 minutes. Since James was hurt he's played 33, 33, 29 and 40 minutes, respectively.

"Part of the reason he transferred here is so he and I could play together again," McNeal said. "But I think there's more to it than that. Everyone has always told him he couldn't play at this level. He wants to show everyone that he can."

Sound familiar?

Whatever happens in the NCAA tournament, Edward McNeal said he couldn't be more proud of his son. Jerel is scheduled to graduate in May. His 1,941 points and 285 steals rank first in school history and, just last week, McNeal was named first-team All-Big East.

As he watched a tribute to his son play on the video board on Senior Night, Edward McNeal couldn't help but get emotional.

"All of it is just overwhelming to me," Edward says. "I always told him, 'Son, it's a free education. Go take advantage of it and have the time of your life.' But I never thought it would end up like this, with his name in all these record books."

Edward pauses as he thinks about how far Jerel has come, from the kid who used to get beat up by his cousins to one of the top college basketball players in America.

"Wouldn't it be great," Edward says, "if he has one more good run in him before he leaves Marquette? One or two more of those special moments? He's played a lot of minutes lately and I know he's probably tired. But I wouldn't put anything past him.

"Most people know by now that Jerel doesn't go down without a fight."

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