July 6, 2007

McNeal turns hard work into turnovers

It simply isn't safe to practice at Marquette.

Guard Jerel McNeal missed five games last season because of injuries incurred during practice.

He and Wesley Matthews collided heads a couple of days before the Big East opener against Providence, forcing the concussed McNeal to miss the game against the Friars. Toward the end of the season he injured his right thumb in practice, sidelining him for the Big East and NCAA tournaments. He later underwent surgery for that one.

McNeal laughed at the suggestion that maybe Tom Crean should take it easy. He's fairly certain his coach would do the same.

"Is it safe? I'm sure if anybody else came in and watched they wouldn't think so," said McNeal, who added that the thumb is 100 percent now. "We go hard at practice day in and day out. There are no easy days, nothing half speed. When we hit the gym we're dead serious and we compete. Guys go hard in practice so games will come easy. We look at things that way.

"Now if Coach thinks maybe we don't need to go so long "

Perish the thought. The Golden Eagles, and especially McNeal, are more than willing to go talon-to-talon with anyone. McNeal was the Big East Defensive Player of the Year. The 6-foot-3 rising junior takes pride in taking out the other team's top scoring option. He was second in the Big East in steals, ranking 10th nationally with 2.6 per game.

"I've got a good frame for playing defense," McNeal said. "I'm not tall but I have long arms and quick feet. Everything else is mental things - anticipation, thinking about plays that the offense will make before they make them. It's a combination of physical ability and getting inside my opponent's head."

McNeal had six steals in an upset victory at Duke on Nov. 21. It was one of eight games in which he had at least four steals.

Marquette guard Jeral McNeal ranked sixth in the nation in steals per game last year. Here's a look at the top 10 steal averages from 2006-07 among returning players.
Travis HolmesVMI3.4
Paul GauseSeton Hall3.1
Chavis HolmesVMI2.8
Tony LeeRobert Morris2.8
Derek JohnsonPrarie View A&M2.7
Jerel McNealMarquette2.6
Courtney PigramE. Tennessee State2.6
Mario ChalmersKansas2.6
Mike GordonBinghampton2.4
Stefhon HannahMissouri2.4
Complete list of returning leaders
McNeal teams with Dominic James and Wesley Matthews to form one of the nation's top backcourts. James was fourth in the Big East in steals and Matthews was 15th. Trying to pass against Marquette is like trying to sneak a hot dog past Joey Chestnut.

"I definitely watch a lot of tape," McNeal said. "It's hard for a lot of younger guys to go in and watch a ton of film, but I do and I get into it. I watch the matchup and tendencies, anything that might help me get a steal here or a steal here, make them take a tougher shot. You find things out like that from watching film.

"Another way is picking things up in a game. If a guy makes a move and gets by me, it won't happen twice. I pick things up quickly in a game. The next time he tries it he's gonna have a problem."

Teams were hoping not to have as many problems with the Golden Eagles this season as they did last, when Marquette went 24-10 and reached the NCAA Tournament. James had declared for the NBA Draft, but he pulled out and will return alongside McNeal and Matthews to make the team a contender in the Big East.

"I'm thrilled about it (James' return)," McNeal said. "It's one of those things where either way I'd be happy for him. He's one of my best friends, and it's his lifelong dream (to play in the NBA). He'll get to live out his dream one day.

"But now that he's back our team doesn't take a step back. We basically return everybody. We've got our core guards and some new additions. I'm just excited. I think we'll be a team to contend with. We're so much more mature. We'll be sticking around the top 10 for most of the year."

Indeed, Marquette is ranked 15th in the Rivals.com Preseason Top 25 poll.

At least until practice starts.

Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at bmcclellan@rivals.com.

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