Ever since he was signed, JUCO transfer Carlos Morris has been the favorite to replace former senior Austin Hollins in the Minnesota starting lineup.
But not so fast, assistant coach Dan McHale said.
Yes, Morris has by all accounts been very impressive in the Gophers' summer workouts.
But so has another guard: Daquein McNeil.
The sophomore, who made headlines with his strong defensive play last year, originally asked Richard Pitino to redshirt his first year. The head coach told him no, believing he could help the team right away.
That instinct turned out to be right on point, with McNeil becoming one of the pleasant surprise in the heart of the Big Ten schedule -- during which the Gophers, as a team, struggled.
McNeil averaged 1.6 points and 1.1 rebounds in 9.7 minutes a game but became somewhat of a defensive specialist while playing multiple positions.
"We just threw him out there," McHale said. "We said 'Play the point guard, play the backup [shooting guard], play the [small forward]. He's such a utility guard ... and he didn't care, he knew all the plays from three different spots. For a freshman, that's pretty good."
McNeil's offensive ability was far behind that of his defense -- he might be the best current defender on the team now that Austin Hollins has left -- but the Gophers staff sees that changing. The Baltimore native has gained muscle and lost weight, McHale said, a combination that should help McNeil use his athleticism more effectively. Gophers fans already saw a playmaker capable getting in the lane and finding guys in transition and in the halfcourt. Now, he's dunking in practice; he's absorbing contact when he goes to the rim. He's gotten stronger and sturdier, aspects that many young prospects underrate until their first season in the rough-and-tumble Big Ten, McHale noted. And McNeil has been working steadily on improving his jumpshot. A year ago, the guard connected on 29.4 percent of his attempts from three-point range and 37.5 percent from the field.
"That always was his knock was that he's not a great outside shooter," McHale said. "He's really worked hard on it."
The improvement to this point is great enough to signal that Morris' starting spot is far from locked down. Regardless of what results from the battle of the lineup opening, the Gophers believe this could be a breakout season for McNeil.
"He's worked hard to where it's definitely going to be a challenge [for Morris]," McHale said. "He showed flashes last year ... He's the type of guy that could take the biggest jump."