McNeil fills vital role as a freshman

Daquein McNeil has seen a boost in minutes over the last seven games.

Minnesota Gophers Men's Basketball hosts Wisconsin, January 22nd, 2014.

Courtesy of University of Minnesota Athletics

Minnesota Gophers Men’s Basketball hosts Wisconsin, January 22nd, 2014.

Jace Frederick

Daquein McNeil had an unusual request for head coach Richard Pitino early in the season.

McNeil, who originally committed to play for Pitino at Florida International before following him to Minnesota, actually asked his head coach if he could redshirt.

He hadn’t been playing much through the exhibition season to start the year, and Pitino said the freshman guard looked lost in practice.

“I felt as though I was a little bit behind the other players, and I wasn’t ready yet,” McNeil said. “I thought [Pitino] would be on board for it.”

He wasn’t.

Pitino, who thought the guard was “a steal” for his FIU squad, stuck with McNeil and decided against the redshirt.

“I said, ‘You know what? I think you can give us minutes,’” Pitino said. “He hadn’t shown us yet how good he was.”

While it’s not often that denial sparks a player’s confidence, that’s exactly what happened with McNeil when his coach turned down his request.

“I was happy,” McNeil said. “It made me feel a little better inside.”

Still, as the season progressed, he wasn’t seeing much court time.

McNeil said the tipping point for him was after a game against Syracuse, when he and junior guard Andre Hollins talked about how McNeil needed to keep pushing himself.

Since then, he’s played — and he’s thrived.

After playing in only three of the first 10 games of the season, McNeil has played in 15 of the last 16 contests. And he’s logged 10-plus minutes in five of the last seven games.

“He’s playing extremely hard in practice. Working hard, and that confidence is coming because of it,” Pitino said. “We’re more comfortable playing him.”

While McNeil is averaging only 1.9 points per game, he’s making his presence felt on the defensive end.

The 6-foot-3-inch guard was a primary cog in the Gophers’ staunch defensive effort, which resulted in a 54-48 win over Northwestern on Sunday.

McNeil and senior guard Austin Hollins combined to hold Wildcats star guard Drew Crawford to just two points on 1-for-15 shooting from the field.

McNeil’s defense has earned him minutes. And the Gophers have certainly needed the help in that department.

“He understands in order for him to play, that’s what he has to do — he’s got to play defense,” Pitino said. “He’s got long arms.

“You can put him on the one, two or three. … He’s helped a lot.”

McNeil credited his development on the defensive end to going up against the likes of Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins in practice.

McNeil said he tries to replicate Andre Hollins’ game on the court.

“He’s an all-around guy,” McNeil said. “He does all the little things and gets his good baskets when we need them.

“So I just try to watch the things he does on offense and defense.”

And Hollins’ offensive game may be starting to wear off on McNeil. While he isn’t called on to get a lot of buckets, McNeil has shown the ability to get to the rim, and his jump shot is improving.

“He goes out there with no fear, no worries when he steps on the floor,” Austin Hollins said. “He comes in there and does his job for the time being on the floor.”