McNeil developing confidence on, off the hardwood

Gophers sophomore Daquein McNeil is vying for a spot in the starting lineup.

Jack Satzinger

Daquein McNeil slouched in a chair on Williams Arena’s floor, clutching a basketball in his hands, nonchalantly staring at the floor.

When a reporter walked over to ask him questions, the sophomore guard glanced up with a “Who, me?” look on his face. Surrounded by the team’s stars, DeAndre Mathieu and Andre Hollins, McNeil was surprised someone wanted to talk to him.

“He’s not a very confident kid. But he’s playing well,” head coach Richard Pitino said. “He’s made the biggest jump of the guys that came back from last year.”

And it doesn’t appear to be close.

Last year, McNeil played fewer than 10 minutes per contest and averaged 1.6 points per game with a poor .375 field goal percentage.

In Minnesota’s intrasquad scrimmage late last month, McNeil flashed an improved jump shot and led both teams with a game-high 20 points.

“The improvement came from just every day working individuals and just staying consistent and shooting the same shot every time,” McNeil said.

The Baltimore native is still timid off the court, but he’s starting to take charge on it.

During the scrimmage, he huddled his teammates together and called a play for himself, which Pitino said never would have happened last year.

McNeil wasn’t a huge offensive threat in his freshman season; his true value came as an energetic defender off the bench. He uses his 6-foot-3-inch, 195-pound frame to body up guards of all sizes, and he was one of Minnesota’s best perimeter defenders last season.

Add the defense to an improved jump shot and a more aggressive mindset, and McNeil is fighting for a starting spot.

McNeil described himself as a combo guard, capable of playing the point or being a shooting guard. But Pitino might start him at small forward — the spot vacated by last year’s starter, Austin Hollins.

Junior college transfer Carlos Morris is McNeil’s strongest competition for the starting job.

“I’m not going to say what my role is. We’re just going to see,” Morris said.

McNeil wouldn’t say whether he thinks he’ll start, either, but it’s a determination Pitino is thinking long and hard about.

“I think [Morris] and [McNeil] are very similar. I don’t think one is way better athletically, defensively, than the other. So that’s a decision that needs to be made,” Pitino said.

At 6 feet 5 inches with a lanky build, Morris looks the part of a small forward, and the stocky, more physical McNeil does not.

But in Pitino’s system, size on the wings doesn’t seem to matter.

“In our offense, there’s no difference,” Pitino said. “Defensively, [McNeil has] long enough arms. I mean, obviously you like [6 feet 6 inches or 6 feet 7], but he can play the three for us for sure.”

McNeil also said he has confidence in himself when playing small forward.

That’s a big step forward for a player who, one year ago, was asking Pitino to redshirt him since he didn’t feel ready for Big Ten play.

“I think he’s going to be a very solid contributor, and he’s battling for that starting spot. That’s what we wanted from him, and he’s shown that and put in a lot of time,” Pitino said.