To say Jerel McNeal was playing well at the end of last season is to say that a January in Milwaukee is chilly.
During Marquette's 2008 post-season run, McNeal emerged as one of the most dynamic and exciting players in the country. He averaged a little over 23 points per game over Marquette's final five games, and a 30-point outburst in a second-round tournament loss to Stanford demonstrated his ability to take over big games.
Despite his remarkable performance in that final game, the end result still compels McNeal to work hard.
"Everyday I think about it – we were a stop away from playing Texas in the Sweet-16," said McNeal. "But its one of those things that drives you in the off-season to get better."
On the heels of such an impressive finish, McNeal entered the NBA draft this spring before deciding it was best to return to Marquette for his senior season. He returns to the recognition of being one of the best players in the country. Preseason, he was named a Fourth-Team All-American and a First-Team All-Big East selection. Though he receives much personal praise, everything starts with the team for the humble McNeal.
"The biggest reason [for my personal success] is my teammates," said McNeal. "I get a lot of credit, but these guys put me in a position to make every play that [I] make."
However, no one among his teammates could have prepared McNeal for some of the events that unfolded this off-season. On April 1st, the entire Marquette community was blindsided by the departure of former head coach Tom Crean.
Yet things began to smooth out soon after. Buzz Williams was named head coach on April 8. Then Dominic James announced his return for the 2008-09 season at the team's end of the year banquet, and McNeal issued a similar declaration after the conclusion of NBA preseason camps in June.
"It was a rough transition at first," said McNeal. "But now everything is fine and we're back to the important thing which is basketball and (trying) to win games."
McNeal emerged unfazed from such a tumultuous time, with his outlook simply to learn from each difficult situation he encounters and use it as motivation for the future.
"The biggest thing I took away [from the NBA draft process] was that I got some more to prove here," said McNeal. "My entire career, there have been a lot of naysayers who may not have been big on my abilities or my team's abilities."
Certainly not among the naysayers is teammate and long-time friend Maurice Acker. A junior guard for the Golden Eagles, Acker played high school basketball with McNeal and probably knows him better than anyone else on the team. According to him, it is McNeal's constant competitiveness on and off the court that makes him a great teammate.
"Jerel is a competitor no matter what we're doing," said Acker. "Whether it's playing video games or just shooting around [he wants to win]. His presence during practice helps everyone get better and ready for the game."
Marquette will need every bit of McNeal's competitive edge as they once again prepare to take on some of the toughest competition in the country in the Big East. While optimistic, McNeal hesitated to make any predictions about the up-coming season.
However, his goal remains to help take Marquette to the next level. And that includes a Big East Championship and a return to the Final Four.
"I've been wanting to go to places that this program hasn't been in a long time since I got here," McNeal said.
If McNeal picks up where he left off last year, he may just get to go there.
Nick Chmurski is a sophomore majoring in finance.