People said making the jump from junior college basketball to a Power 5 program – from Sinclair Community College to West Virginia in the Big 12 Conference – was going to be tough.
But nobody told Sean McNeil it would be this tough:
•On WVU’s basketball trip to Spain this summer, the 6-foot-3 sophomore guard scored 24 points in the first two games, then ate a meal, got deathly sick, dropped a lot of weight and it took a long time for him to fully recover and continue his transition to big-time college basketball.
•During a mid-October practice, he caught an inadvertent elbow near the left eye from 6-foot-7 senor Jermaine Haley and suffered a concussion.
•And an ongoing hamstring injury was again bothering him some last Friday night during the Mountaineers charity exhibition game against Duquesne at the WVU Coliseum that benefitted the Dayton Foundation’s Oregon District Tragedy Fund.
And yet the matchup with the Dukes was just what the doctor ordered for McNeil.
Although his first-ever Division I game started out a bit shaky — he opened his night with two bad-pass turnovers, two missed shots and a foul — he did hit one of his trademark three-pointers before the half.
He settled down in the second half and added nine more points and no turnovers. In the final 70 seconds he made a three-pointer, then grabbed a defensive rebound and —with the help of a behind the back dribble – he drove the length of the court, muscled past the final defender and made the lay-up in what would end up a 78-70 West Virginia victory.
McNeil finished with 12 points – second highest on the team – and was especially pleased that his effort came in a charity game to aid those affected by the mass shooting in Dayton, the town where his basketball career was relaunched last season.
Friday night he had to boost himself up again in mid-game.
“I was a little upset with myself at halftime because I wasn’t shooting well,” he said. “A couple of my teammates came up and said, ‘Relax and just shoot the ball!’
“I was thinking too much. I had to stop thinking, stop being nervous and just play basketball. And I did. Right at the end there I think you kind of got a glimpse of it.”
Sensational season at Sinclair
Coming out of Cooper High School in Union, Ky. — a team he helped lead to the state title game — he said he had no NCAA Division I offers and signed with D-II power Bellarmine University in Louisville.
But after taking just a couple of classes, he suddenly decided he wasn’t ready for school and came home. He eventually ended up at Gateway Community and Technical College, a junior college in Covington, Ky. that had no athletics program.
He found himself missing basketball and an assistant coach at Morehead State said he should reestablish himself with a junior college basketball program and suggested Sinclair.
“I didn’t know what to expect at the JUCO level, so I was just trying to play basketball and hopefully present an opportunity for myself after that,” McNeil said.
Tartan Pride head coach Jeff Price said McNeil brought a strong work ethic and competitive nature to practices and those habits paid dividends in games.
In the first month of last season McNeil had games were he scored 47, 44, 40 and a school-record 55 points when he hit nine three pointers against Bryant and Stratton College near Cleveland.
By season’s end, he led the nation (NJCAA Division II) in scoring, averaging 29.7 points per game. He led all of junior college basketball (Divisions I, II and III) with 4.3 three pointers per game and his average of 6.4 free throws was second in the nation.
He was the Ohio Community College Athletic Conference Player of the Year and an NJCAA Division II All American.
His performances caught the attention of four-year schools across the nation. Over 90 colleges showed interest in him and scores of coaches – including head coaches like West Virginia’s Bob Huggins, Oklahoma State’s Mike Boynton, Missouri’s Counzo Martin Xavier’s Travis Steele and Dayton Anthony Grant – came to watch him play.
Dozens of schools offered scholarships and McNeil pared down the list to: Texas Tech, Ole Miss, Oregon, Western Kentucky, Dayton and West Virginia.
Following Friday’s game – after the Mountaineer players had stood on the court and joined the fans in singing “Take Me Home, Country Roads” – McNeil offered three reasons why he wanted to be a Mountaineer:
“Obviously the coach. A legendary Hall of Fame coach. He knows what he’s talking about. He’s a character, but he’s my guy. He’s a great coach.
“This level. The Big 12. You can’t ask for a higher level than that.
“And my teammates were the biggest thing. I knew when I came on my visit here. I hung out with them and I knew I was going to come here that first night.”
With the Mountaineers, McNeil saw a team where he could make an impact.
WVU went 15-21 last season and that’s an anomaly when it comes to recent Mountaineer basketball. The previous four teams won 105 games and made four straight NCAA tournaments.
Huggins has an all-time 859-363 mark, making him one of just 10 coaches with 800 victories. He’s taken 23 teams in the past 26 years to NCAA Tournaments.
He knows players and in McNeil he sees someone he believes can play at WVU.
McNeil admitted the step from junior college to the Big 12 is “huge.”
“At this level you play against athlete upon athlete upon athlete,” he said. “You play against stronger guys and bigger guys who have a better grasp of the game. But I know what can do, too. “
Huggins does, too:
“He has a great touch and can get his own shot. He’s going to score points. And tonight I thought he was better defensively than he has been. He’s going to have a great future here.”
The problem has been the recent past.
“He had played well, but then he got sick in Spain,” Huggins said. “He got some kind of rare, I want to say, blood disease, though I’m not 100 percent sure. I know it was something like that. He was really sick a lost a bunch of weight”
McNeil wasn’t sure either: “We were in Valencia. I ate some chicken and played that night. Back at the hotel I got the chills and maybe slept for 30 minutes. I was sick all night.”
Huggins said McNeil had had to overcome a lot the past few months: “It’s just been in the past week and a half that he’s full go….But he’s going to be fine.”
The Mountaineers open their season Friday night at home against Akron and McNeil can’t wait:
“I tell everybody that I love it more now than when I first knew I was going to come here. It’s not only the basketball stuff, it’s the people here. The atmosphere here. It’s everything I could have asked for …and more.”
He wasn’t talking about that elbow to the head, the tweaked hamstring and the pain in Spain.
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