Marquette coach Tom Crean announced that guard Jerel McNeal, the Golden Eagles' second leading scorer and best defensive player, will be out for Thursday's first round NCAA tournament contest against the Spartans, but then yesterday Crean hedged a bit, saying McNeal was "trying to get into the game," but he wasn't sure if he could get "cleared by the doctors."
McNeal has been out since the regular-season finale with a right thumb injury and still has a cast over the thumb.
The Golden Eagles lose arguably their best player for at least the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament if indeed the high-scoring guard is unable to go.
McNeal is the 2007 Big East defensive player of the year in addition to also earning second team all-Big East honors. He averages 14.7 points, 4.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 2.6 steals. Marquette three-guard offense could be missing a major component if he can't go.
Still, the Golden Eagles have shown that they can play well without him, beating Pittsburgh in the season finale and St. Johns in the first round of the Big East tournament.
But their steam ran out against Pittsburgh the second time around in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament as a short bench and lack of depth caught up with the Golden Eagles, falling to the Panthers 89-79.
Additionally, leading scorer sophomore Dominic James has been struggling as of late, shooting only 20 percent from the field in his last few games.
With McNeal out and James struggling with his shot, the Golden Eagles are looking for scoring answers as game day quickly approaches.
Guard Wesley Matthews is the third option in scoring, with 12.7 points per game on the season and he might have to come up big if Marquette hopes to overcome adversity and beat Crean's mentor Tom Izzo.
"Losing McNeal hurts them some but their two guys that replaced them each scored 20 in back-to-back games," said Tom Izzo. "They're still a good penetrating team. Stopping penetration is going to be a major key for us to work on. They have been streaky at times in shooting the ball but so have we."
In McNeal's absence, Dan Fitzgerald has filled in and scored career-highs of 20 points in the last two games.
"Fitzgerald gives them another dimension where he extends the defense," said Izzo.
While Izzo and Crean would both admit that their teams mirror each other, McNeal's absence hurts Marquette's chances of advancing.
Without him, the Golden Eagles are left with James and Matthews as the only two players scoring in double-figures.
The lack of depth could hurt the Golden Eagles dramatically and force players to stay out on the court longer, meaning that the Spartans might be facing a worn-out team by late in the second half.