In the Sooners’ opening practice of the 2014-15 season, McNeace was working in one-on-one drills against veteran forward Ryan Spangler, who is well known for his physical play. As Spangler backed McNeace down, the freshman flopped to the ground. Spangler turned, looked down in disgust at his prone teammate and said something to McNeace, who still won’t repeat the exact words.
Playing in college was always going to be an adjustment for McNeace, who played his first full season of basketball as a senior in high school. Since that first tumble, McNeace has done everything possible to remain a big part of Oklahoma’s future front court.
“We kind of hoped he’d take big steps quickly,” said Oklahoma assistant coach Steve Henson, who was McNeace’s primary recruiter and has worked with the redshirting freshman every day. “We didn’t really know if that would happen, then it has. It can be a tough year for a guy when he redshirts, but it can also be a great year and a developmental year. He’s taken advantage of it.”
If there was one thing Oklahoma expected McNeace to do this year, it was grow and improve.
Being cut as a freshman still digs deep for McNeace, who made the JV team in Illinois as a sophomore but missed a big part of the season with tendinitis. He moved back down to Texas as a junior, sitting out because of his relocation before jumping on with the varsity team at Allen.
He was also seven inches taller than when he was first cut.
Finally playing as a senior but still very raw, McNeace averaged 9.7 points, 10.1 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game playing for former Norman High coach Jeff McCullough, who McNeace said brought big portions of the Oklahoma offense and defense to Allen High.
Now, it’s all about reps for McNeace, who has also had to watch his roommate and fellow freshman Khadeem Lattin play significant minutes as a true freshman.
McNeace might be getting stronger, having added almost 20 pounds of muscle since coming to Norman, but he couldn’t tell if he was getting better. Henson and head coach Lon Kruger have told them that they’ve seen improvement.
“It’s made me hungrier,” McNeace said of redshirting. “I came here to compete. I didn’t come here to sit out. I felt like this year off has given me a chance to get better. I feel like I’ve gotten a lot stronger. I’m not getting moved as easily as when I first got here.”
Extensive pre-practice workouts and post-practice shooting sessions have become more of a norm for McNeace, who also serves as one of Oklahoma’s best scout teamers. On Sunday, he was playing 3-on-3 with a few of his walk-on teammates and fellow redshirted freshman Dante Buford while the rest of Sooners were watching film in preparation for Monday’s game against Iowa State.
McNeace was frustrated afterward. His team – of James Fraschilla and Bola Alade – lost three games to two. He gets upset when he misses jump shots during practice. It’s left him wanting more, which is exactly the feeling Oklahoma wants from him.
“I’m not satisfied yet,” McNeace said. “I’m not going to be satisfied until I’m knocking down jump shots like 9 out of 10 open jump shots during my workouts. It makes me really mad when I miss a shot now. I’ve been working on it so long.”
Long is a relative term for McNeace. He never worked out to lifted weights before coming to Oklahoma. His short career was based more on just playing, using his still-new 7-foot-4 wingspan and athleticism to control the paint in high school.
When he got to Oklahoma, maybe the newest thing for McNeace was the physicality of the collegiate game.
Learning from Spangler and four-year starter TaShawn Thomas has helped McNeace develop maybe a little quicker than he might have without them. From the first practice, McNeace quickly understood exactly how different playing basketball was at Oklahoma.
“Since then, I’m not getting moved,” McNeace said. “Then, they’d bump me one time and I’d fall over. I wasn’t used to getting hit. Being here almost a year now, I’m used to it. I kinda like contact now.”