Jerel McNeal: A Big East Prospect

BY MARK MILLER<br> Wisconsin Basketball News Editor<br><br> There are some striking similarities in the way Jerel McNeal and Dwyane Wade compete on the basketball court. Both Chicago-area natives do a tremendous job of consistently filling up a stat sheet. Both are wing-type guards who possess astonishing athleticism. And, both are relatively quiet and unassuming individuals who put the needs of the team ahead of any individual desires.

A 6-foot-2 combination guard from Hillcrest High School in Country Club Hills, Ill., headed to Marquette on a basketball scholarship, McNeal is flattered to be compared to the multi-talented Wade, who keyed Marquette's run to the Final Four in 2003.

"It's definitely an honor to be mentioned with Dwyane Wade," said McNeal, moments before leading Hillcrest against Proviso East in the prestigious Proviso West Holiday Tournament Dec. 29.

"I do see some similarities in our game in terms of the final stat lines. But, being compared to Dwyane is a big expectation to live up to. I just try to stay focused and come out and do everything I can to help us win.

"I tend to do a little bit of everything. I can shoot a little bit, I can go to the basket, I can pass and, more than anything else, I can play some defense."

Harv and Roy Schmidt have operated the Illinois Prep Bulls-eye recruiting service for more than 20 years and currently rank McNeal as the top senior in the state. They, too, see similarities between McNeal and Wade, who prepped at Richards High School in Robbins, Ill.

"McNeal is very similar to Wade in his style of play," the Schmidt brothers said in an e-mail. "McNeal is a relentless open-court defender and an excellent transition finisher who is able to generate offense with his athleticism and defense. His vertical leap is exceptional, and he has good upper-body strength.

"His outside game has improved tremendously, again much like Wade his senior season. It is scary how McNeal is underrated nationally, much like Wade was. To further catch up to Wade, McNeal has to improve his ball handling against pressure and cut down on the resulting turnovers."

In an early season showdown against highly regarded Homewood-Flossmour and its Kansas-bound recruit, Julian Wright, McNeal led Hillcrest to a 68-62 victory with 22 points, nine steals, seven rebounds and five assists.

It's those kind of numbers that have veteran Hillcrest coach Tom Cappel convinced McNeal will fare exceptionally well at Marquette.

"Jerel has terrific athletic ability," said Cappel, who played for Ray Meyer at De Paul. "He has great jumping ability, great speed and great quickness. He can take it to the hole, he can post-up and he can now hit the three-pointer. He also has a very strong inner desire to win."

Marquette over Purdue
McNeal knew he wanted to play college basketball in the midwest and says he selected Marquette over Purdue and Dayton because of his close relationship with Tom Crean.

"Coach Crean really drew me to Marquette," McNeal said. "I feel he's one of the better college coaches. I am very excited to go up to Milwaukee and play for him.

"I love coach Crean's intensity and how he breaks down film. I had the chance to watch a lot of things he does on my official visit, and I love his enthusiasm for the game and how much he wants to win."

Cappel is amazed more schools did not actively recruit McNeal.

"Illinois recruited Jerel for a while, but then they backed off," Cappel said. "De Paul says they recruited him, but they did not recruit him hard enough until it was too late. We're talking about just a wonderful kid, a B-student and a thinker on the basketball court. Marquette is getting a top-rated player."

McNeal is excited to be a key member of a Marquette recruiting class ranked as the 14th-best in the nation by Prep Stars Recruiter's Handbook.

Indiana point guard Dominic James, Madison Memorial wing Wesley Matthews and Utah swingman Matt Mortensen round out Crean's impressive list of recruits.

"I think we have a very good class coming in," McNeal said. "I had the chance to watch Dominic play on the AAU circuit, and I think he's a great player. Dominic went along with me on my official visit to Marquette and I think we'll be very good when we get up there. From what people tell me, Wes is suppose to be a very good player, too. It's exciting to be a part of such a great incoming class."

Defensive stopper
Crean has long been fond of charting the number of deflections his players generate in a game.

In McNeal, Cappel believes Crean is getting a player who can develop into a defensive stopper in part because of his uncanny ability to create a large number of deflections.

Indeed, many observers believe McNeal's primary strength is on the defensive end of the court.

"Jerel has great anticipation," Cappel said. "He puts his hands in the passing lanes and tips balls all the time."

McNeal is proud of his reputation on defense, but says he is far from satisfied with his overall progression as a player.

In preparation for the collegiate level, McNeal is spending the majority of time refining his perimeter shooting and ball-handling skills.

"My goal is to be the best player out there every time I step on the court," McNeal said. "I am not going to settle for being just one of the best players out there. I try to raise my level of play every night."

At 6-2 and around 190 pounds, McNeal is athletic and strong enough to play either the shooting guard or small forward positions at Marquette. He also believes he can earn some minutes at point guard.

"I'll play wherever coach Crean asks me to play," McNeal said. "If coach asks me to play some two-guard, that's what I'll do. If he asks me to switch over and play the point, that's what I'll do. It's going to be all about whatever the team needs. I feel I'm versatile to play either guard spot."

In a 78-72 loss to Proviso East, McNeal scored 20 first-half points and was easily the best player on the floor for the first 16 minutes. Proviso East went to a zone defense in the second half to slow McNeal, who finished with 24 points.

McNeal finished 10-of-18 from the floor and nailed a pair of three-point shots as Hillcrest fell to 10-2.

"Getting to the state tournament is our main goal," said McNeal, who teams with Ball State recruit Maurice Acker to form one of the top backcourt duos in Illinois. "I have a great supporting cast and we've been playing well. I want to continue going in a positive direction."

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