On a team that lost three impact seniors to graduation, including current NBA player Steve Novak, leadership is a quality in high demand.
"We look at it as being a family too," McNeal commented, referring to a team leader's responsibility to help his teammates with their off-the-court situations as well with basketball issues.
McNeal has even more reason to see this year's team as a family affair. His former high school and AAU teammate, Maurice Acker, transferred to Marquette form Ball State over the summer and will sit this year out due to NCAA regulations.
Both players grew up together in Chicago's south suburbs, with McNeal living in Country Club Hills and Acker residing in neighboring Hazelcrest.
Together, they formed one of the best back courts in the country while leading Hillcrest High School to national recognition their senior year. With Acker at point and McNeal manning the two they reached the sectional finals of the Illinois state tournament, falling to #1 ranked Homewood-Flossmoor and current Kansas University standout Julian Wright. They also combined for 246 steals that season, including a school record 155 by McNeal.
"That's my best friend in the whole world," McNeal said of Acker, "and it really means a lot to me for him to be here. Off the court it's going to feel like I really have somebody here for me at all times."
On the court, McNeal has worked long and hard in the off-season to improve his jump shot and has made tremendous strides according to Crean. McNeal admits, though, it will take nothing less than a combined effort to replace the scoring void left by Novak. He will most likely play an active role in filling holes in the areas of both points and rebounds. McNeal returns as the team's third leading scorer from a year ago with an 11.1 points per game average, and its second leading rebounder, averaging 4.5 boards per contest.
The question of who can respond this season with the game on the line is still up in the air.
McNeal had a knack for stepping up in the clutch in high school. Hillcrest coach Tom Cappel cites an instance where McNeal scored nine points in the last 45 seconds of a game to single-handedly deliver his team to a one-point victory.
"He refuses to lose," Cappel said of his former player.
McNeal's current coach regards him as "one of the most aggressive, attack minded individuals I've ever been a part of coaching."
Crean says he would like to see McNeal cut down on his turnovers, a sore spot in his game a year ago, and take an increased role in the ball handling duties. While pointing to improved decision making this season as key for McNeal's success, Crean doesn't want him to sacrifice the intensity that made him such an important contributor last season.
"We'll live with a few turnovers to get what he brings us," said Crean.
That "high throttle" approach helped make McNeal one of the best defenders in the conference. Last season for the Golden Eagles, he passed Doc Rivers' freshman steals mark with 64 on the year.
The second-year guard's focus continues to be on those more minute aspects of the game. McNeal downplayed the need to consciously take more shots in favor of a more sage approach to picking up the slack.
"[What a] lot of players don't seem to learn right away is that you have to learn to affect the game in other ways [besides scoring]. That's what I try to pride myself on. I try to do anything I can to help my team win."
That sure sounds like the words of a developing team leader. But while that still remains to be seen, one thing about McNeal is definitely certain.
He'll have Maurice with him the entire way.