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10/03/2007 10:32:00 AM
Blog Q&A With ... Marquette's Jerel McNeal
Big East Defensive Player of the Year Jerel McNeal returns to Marquette for his junior season.
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For the latest edition of the Blog Q&A series, I chatted with the reigning Big East Defensive Player of the Year, Marquette guard Jerel McNeal. After averaging 14.7 points, 3.8 assists and 2.6 steals per game as a sophomore -- but missing the Golden Eagles' NCAA tournament loss to Michigan State with a thumb injury -- he's back to anchor a seasoned team that should begin in the top 10 of most polls. The following is an edited version of a phone conversation we had on Tuesday.
Luke Winn: You've built a strong rep for getting a lot of steals and deflections on D [coach Tom Crean has said that McNeal has more deflections than any player not named Dwyane Wade]. Was there a certain defensive wiz that you admired growing up?
Jerel McNeal: Yeah -- and he's still underrated, even though he's one of the best to ever play the game: Scottie Pippen. The thing I respect about him most is that he could outsmart the guys he was guarding. He had unbelievable physical attributes, too, that allowed him to guard guys from the one to the three [positions] in the NBA. And night in and night out, Scottie wanted to take the best player.
LW: Do you share that philosophy?
JM: It's exactly what I want to do.
LW: Is there ever any debate between say, you and coach Crean about who you'll get to match up with on D?
JM: There are times when the best player might be a wing who's 6-6 or 6-7, and coach might second-guess it, but he got over most of that by the time I hit my second year. He knows now that I can guard big guys as easily as I could smaller guys. One through three, one through four, you can put me on him if he's the best player. It's a no-brainer.
LW: You once said that the 'toughness' in your game comes from growing up on Chicago's South Side. What specifically about the city toughened you up?
JM: It's just the city life period. Everything there is a challenge. If you're a pushover, you won't make it.
LW: I read recently that Tae Kwon Do was making its way into Marquette's basketball workouts. Seriously?
JM: We just had a session today. Coach [Crean] has all these black belts coming into the gym and teaching us Tae Kwon Do twice a week for about an hour.
LW: Any hand-to-hand combat with teammates?
JM: The main thing is just teaching us the moves. We don't go after each other because it's so risky. We definitely know it builds up hand speed and flexibility and footwork, though -- three things that are huge in basketball.
LW: Another new thing for this year: You guys jumped ship from Nike and became the first school to sign with Converse -- obviously, because of the connection to D-Wade. How's the gear?
JM: Dwyane's been doing a good job of sending us a lot of stuff -- a ton of shoes and different things. The shoes are a lot better than a lot of the guys thought they were going to be. Especially all the D-Wades. They've got the Marquette colors; they're going to match our uniforms. It feels good being a Converse school now.
LW: Are you getting any Chucks out of that deal?
JM: None yet. We're gonnna try to work something out for custom-made blue and gold Chuck Taylors. Some stuff to walk around in.
LW: New Converse jerseys on the way, too, I hear -- and four different versions. Which is the best one?
An actual Marquette retro jersey, hanging inside the team's video room on campus.
JM: We're kind of going back to the old-school style, with the little checkers going around the sleeves and the collar. There's one like that in powder blue and gold; it's probably the most exciting, since our fans haven't seen it for a real long time. It'll be our fourth jersey, and it might be the best-looking one too.
LW: When are you breaking out that retro version?
JM: Hopefully the championship of the Maui Invitational or the Big East opener. It'll depend on what mood coach [Crean] is in. He's pretty superstitious.
LW: Superstitious how?
JM: Well, we got some new warmups last year for a game against DePaul. They were white and navy blue, real nice. We played pretty bad and lost, and I haven't seen them since. I don't know what he did with them. That's just how coach is.
LW: Do you have any pre-game superstitions?
JM: I always sleep before every game. We have a time that we get picked up, and I sleep until 10 minutes before that. Wake up, throw my iPod on, and listen to music until it's time to play. Before every game when we go out for warmups, me and Dominic are the last two out of the locker room. That might not be superstition, though. It's probably just because we take the longest to get ready out of everybody.
LW: You're finally reuniting with your old point guard from high school, Maurice Acker [a transfer from Ball State who sat out last season, and could be in line for a lot of playing time in '07-08]. What was it like when you two played together at Hillcrest in Chicago?
JM: It was a really fast, athletic, up-tempo style of play. We had probably the best backcourt in the state of Illinois our junior and senior years. And since we've been playing with each other for so long, we always know what the other one is going to do.
LW: When Maurice decided he was going to leave Ball State [after being named the MAC's top freshman in 2005-06], was it pretty easy for you to lure him to Marquette?
JM: The whole time when he was at Ball State, we kept in touch. When he found out that coach [Tim] Buckley might not be sticking around, he said he wanted to transfer. I basically put a bug in coach [Crean's] ear. I said, 'I know for a fact he's good enough to play on this level.' I thought he could help the team. There never was much of an opening for any other school with Maurice once he decided to transfer for sure. He got his papers, and he was right up here.
LW: Is it possible that you'll start four guards this year -- some combination of you, Dominic [James], Wes [Matthews], Maurice and David Cubillan?
JM: It's definitely possible -- and you're probably going to see it sooner than you think. Some teams might not do it because they have concerns with rebounding and guarding post players, but we're mature enough to be able to run four guards. Me and Wes both play a little bit bigger than we are on D, so we'll be able to handle it.
LW: You and Wes were at the U.S. Pan-Am Games trials this summer. You didn't make the final roster [for the trip to Brazil], but what did you take away from the experience? The tryout roster there was loaded.
JM: It was my first time getting into hard competition against top guys since my injury [the thumb issue that kept him out of the NCAAs], so it was a big deal. The main thing I did was learn about other guys' games -- and I realized that there wasn't anyone out there that did something I couldn't do, or did something that I couldn't guard, so that gave me confidence. It was like the next two years' Pre-Draft camp there, so it let me know that I definitely have a chance [at the NBA] when I step away from Marquette.
LW: Going into this season, why should we believe you can beat Georgetown or Louisville, or any of the other contenders, for the Big East title?
JM: It's one of those years where we've got everyone back. All five starters. Our sixth, seventh and eighth men off the bench. Not to mention we're adding Maurice [Acker], who was a MAC rookie of the year. Plus the freshmen we're bringing in, Trevor Mbakwe, Pat Hazel and Scott Christopherson. Our team chemistry is on another level right now, compared to the way it's been over the past couple of years. We're mature enough where we can go on the road and win big games. We're one of those teams that opponents just aren't going to want to face this year.
LW: I'm assuming you're familiar with the photo of the only Marquette national title team, from 1977, where they're standing around a Rolls Royce, wearing tuxes. What was your first thought when you saw it?
JM: I loved it. I absolutely loved it. Those guys were great competitors, and they won and won big. They all had great personalities, and they created a tradition for this program that still lives on through today. They had more personality than other champs, too -- with the Rolls, and the tuxes, and if you look, they all had their own poses.
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LW: Let's say you guys win a national championship this year. Is there any way to trump that picture?
JM: I don't know if that's possible. I don't know if we could get a Rolls Royce ... but we do have a lot of creative guys on this team. I'm sure that we could collectively come up with something that would come close to one-upping it.
Really looking forward to this year. Being a fan for some time, Crean has really improved the program and deserves the respect he gets. Many players should have a breakout year, including Jerel. Perhaps those new to the program do not remember some of our past coaches and teams, so they are not as excited. You are a very small minority.
Winn, I love your take on the Golden Eagles. Being an alumnus from the 2004 class, I had the benefit of experiencing the D-Wade era. Clearly, having a player of Wade's caliber is a huge advantage. But that team also had a ton of chemistry. So it's promising to head McNeal talk about this year's team chemistry. Would you agree?
Did someone try to say Marquette plays in a weak conference? Are you serious? Since when is the Big East a week conference. 1/3 of the top 10 teams in the nation are Big East. On the topic of weak conference.... best move MU ever made was to leave the CUSA. Since them they have established themselves as a national powerhouse and their tv air time has tripled