NEW MARQUETTE coach Buzz Williams is continually amused by the disconnect between the toughness of senior guard Jerel McNeal, who was the Big East's defensive player of the year as a sophomore, and the name of the town where he attended high school, Country Club Hills, Ill. "I've never heard of anywhere called Country Club [being] tough," says Williams. "They give me a country club membership for being the coach, and it ain't tough out there."
But don't let the name of the town fool you. There's plenty of grit in McNeal, who was raised on Chicago's South Side by his grandmother, Luella Echols, before he moved in with his father, Edward, for high school. McNeal, who can guard three positions, has made his mark in a nonflashy way. As Williams says, "He's always around the ball," using his lateral quickness to cut off opponents' penetration, deflect pass attempts and get steals. Says Connecticut point guard A.J. Price, "He never gambles. He only goes for a steal when he's sure he can get it."
When former Golden Eagles coach Tom Crean took the Indiana job in April, he left behind a loaded backcourt for Williams, who'd been his assistant for only a year. In addition to McNeal there are fellow seniors Dominic James and Wesley Matthews, all of whom have started together since they were freshmen. They nearly reached the Sweet 16 last year, but their upset bid of third-seeded Stanford was foiled when Cardinal center Brook Lopez hit a lean-in prayer with 1.3 seconds left in overtime for an 82--81 win. James says that McNeal, who always wants to guard the opponent's best scorer, "even wanted to take Lopez" in that game, their seven-inch height difference be damned.
Height issues are likely to plague Marquette this season even more than they did in '07--08, when they had 6'10" Ousmane Barro manning the middle. His replacement, Dwight Burke, is just 6'8". Lazar Hayward, who will start at power forward, is 6'6". Williams says he'll use four or even five guards at times, which means McNeal will be joined on the floor by his high school teammate, 5'8" Maurice Acker, in an ultrasmall lineup that will play at a breakneck pace. "We need to take advantage of our quickness," Williams says, because as the tempo slows down, "our size dilemma gets revealed."
James likes to call McNeal an "old soul" because of his fondness for singing slow-jam classics by the likes of Marvin Gaye. Now McNeal is considered an old man in the college game, having opted to stick around at Marquette after initially declaring for the NBA draft. If the Golden Eagles play fast enough to fluster the heavyweights in the Big East, McNeal's swan song could be a hit.
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]