At the beginning of the 2005-2006 season, Marquette ushered in three top rated guards to fill the void left by All-American Travis Diener. No one knew what they could expect from this young group who joined just a handful of returning players with significant experience.
As the buzz started to hover over the explosive and highly touted freshmen from Indiana, Dominic James, and the Wisconsin Player of the Year, Wesley Matthews, Jerel McNeal entered his freshmen year uncertain of how much playing time he would receive and what role he would play. He was confident, but overshadowed, quick but a little undersized, athletic but sometimes erratic.
McNeal started alongside Matthews and James from the onset and immediately made an impact. While his offensive prowess was coming along, McNeal's play on the defensive end was noteworthy. He would finish as the team leader in deflections and was constantly disrupting opposing offenses with his on-ball pressure that Coach Tom Crean dubbed, "the best on the team." He led a defensive unit that posted ten more deflections per game than the 2004-2005 team did. His exciting and active defense even earned him the nickname, "Jerel McSteal," from Marquette's radio play by play man, Steve True.
Marquette's 94-79 victory over Connecticut in their Big East opener proved several things. First, Marquette made an important opening statement to the league that they would back up the entire year. Also, Steve Novak proved himself as one of college basketball's best players as he dumped in 41 points and grabbed 16 rebounds. Lost in the glory of beating the nation's #2 team though, was McNeal's performance. McNeal chipped in 19 points and snatched 12 rebounds against of the best teams in the country. He altered the game with flashy drives to the basket and helped create space for Novak's outside shooting.
"It did a lot for my confidence," said McNeal of the UConn game. "If you can do it against those guys, you can do it against anybody."
McNeal said he also gained confidence from Coach Crean's reaction to his play. "Coach was not shocked at all. He knew it was just a matter of time and that really helped me get ready for the rest of the year."
And what a finish to his freshmen year it was. McNeal was named to the Big East All-Freshmen team and won the Deflection King and Floor Burn awards at Marquette's year end banquet. He also benefited from a game at Madison Square Garden in the Big East Tournament and an NCAA Tournament appearance.
"So far, it has been an unbelievable ride," said McNeal. "Being able to come here and play on such a great team was invaluable to me. I am hoping to come out and prove even more over the next couple years."
The work certainly isn't over. Marquette's bitter defeat to Alabama in the tournament has left many on this team hungry for next season. As far as Jerel's individual improvement, he knows some long days in the gym await him.
"The main concern with me is shooting and working on my guard skills," he said. "Coach wants me to work on my free throws and make an even bigger impact next year on the defensive end. Nothing is really changing though. I'm going into it hoping to make an even bigger step than last year."
The Golden Eagles will also look to take that big step as they return a young but battle tested group in their second Big East season. While the loss of Steve Novak will be difficult to replace, Marquette will rely on superior athleticism to spread the floor and create fast break opportunities from turnovers next season. After experiencing so much success his freshmen year, McNeal is sure to be right in the mix of a deep, hungry, and more experienced team in 2006-2007.