This is the seventh of ten posts revealing the ten Marquette nominees for the SBN Wisconsin Hall of Fame. These are in no particular order, except for the particular order they're in.
He arrived as the least-heralded player in a dynamic trio that was destined to reignite the flame of Marquette basketball.
He left as the most decorated player in that same trio: the leading scorer in Marquette history, a well-rounded force who led his team to four consecutive 10-win seasons in the Big East and four consecutive NCAA tournament invitations.
He's now a nominee for the SBN Wisconsin Hall of Fame.
I'm Tom Rinaldi.* This is Outside the Lines: The Jerel McNeal Story.**
* No, I'm not.
** No, this isn't.
The McSteal story continues, after the jump.
After completing his prep career at Hillcrest High School (Country Club Hills, IL), Jerel McNeal arrived at Marquette University in the fall of 2005. Despite a very successful run at Hillcrest -- McNeal was named to the AP's All-State First Team in 2005, as well as the Chicago Tribune's All-State First Team and the Parade All-American Third Team -- 'Rel found himself in the shadow of classmates Dominic James (who set the world on fire during his freshman campaign at MU) and home state hero Wesley Matthews, Jr. (who made waves by spurning his hometown UW-Madison Badgers for Marquette). Nevertheless, McNeal started every game for the Golden Eagles in 2005-'06 and earned a reputation as a defensive Tasmanian devil; 'Rel averaged 2.1 steals per game, and was dubbed "McSteal" as a result.
Unfortunately, during his first two years, 'Rel was as good at giving the ball back to the opposition as he was taking it away. He averaged 3.8 turnovers per game in his freshman season and a staggering 4.1 turnovers per game in his sophomore campaign, which ended early when McNeal broke his thumb in practice -- a Smarmy Tom Crean Special, as the locals like to call it -- before the final Big East game of the season. Without Jerel, a punchless Marquette squad and a laughably-intimidated Crean got pushed around by Michigan State in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
The 2007-'08 season saw the beginning of The Emergence of McNeal, as Jerel transformed from a capable-if-unspectacular player into the team's go-to guy. Cutting his turnovers to 2.8 per game while averaging 4.9 boards and 3.5 assists per contest, McNeal was a dominant force down the stretch, scoring 20 points or more in five of the last six contests -- including a Herculean 30-point, 8-rebound performance in a heartbreaking overtime loss to Stanford in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
After toying with the idea of going pro, McNeal ultimately withdrew his name from the NBA Draft and joined James and Matthews for a tremendous senior season. Cementing his place among the all-time greats of Marquette basketball, McNeal added a highly-effective three-point shot to his repertoire; after knocking down triples at about a 30% clip for his first three years, 'Rel shot 38% from beyond the arc in his senior year (including an unconscious 7-for-7 performance against Cincinnati on January 4, 2009). The improved three-point shot led to a significant bump in McNeal's points-per-game output, as he averaged 19.8 points per contest and, on February 10, 2009, broke George Thompson's 41-year-old, all-time Marquette scoring mark.
It seems silly to call a 6'2", 190 lb. off guard a dominant force, but I think that's the best word to describe Jerel in 2008-'09. Witness the game vs. UW-Madison in 2008: with Marquette trailing 41-34 at the 17 minute mark of the second half, Jerel scored Marquette's next 14 points -- and 19 of the team's last 27 points -- as MU swiped victory from the jaws of defeat with a 61-58 triumph over The Red Menace. Or consider 'Rel's game at Notre Dame in 2009, when he scored 16 first-half points (including two traditional three-point plays in the first 10 minutes of the game) to prevent the Irish from opening a lead on their home court, and then drilled a cold-blooded three-pointer with two minutes to go that took the air out of the gym.
Once again, while Marquette's season ended in heartbreak with a loss in the second round of the NCAA tournament, 'Rel left everything on the floor in his last game, putting up 30 points (and 13-15 free throw shooting) with five rebounds and four assists. The Three Amigos drew a lot of flack from small-minded, small-picture types who harped on the trio's failure to make the Sweet 16 of the Big Dance, but, as 'Rel's performances against Stanford and Missouri show, it wasn't like the The Amigos crapped the bed in the tournament. They played great, but **** happened. Them's the breaks.
For all these reasons, I hereby nominate Jerel McNeal for the SBN Wisconsin Hall of Fame.