Daquein McNeil shook his head. He looked over at a glaring Richard Pitino, dropped his eyes to the ground in frustration and then peeked back at the glare again, as if to see if his coach was still angry.
The 6-foot-3 sophomore guard had just picked on his second foul (he had three overall, all in the first half) after aggressively guarding his man, Louisville guard Anton Gill at halfcourt. It felt like piling on for Minnesota, which ended up posting 31 fouls overall in Friday's 81-68 loss to No. 8 Louisville in Puerto Rico.
It also served as a quick reminder of how far McNeil has come.
Last year, the Baltimore native came to Minnesota a raw, unproven freshman. Pitino -- who originally signed him at Florida International -- wanted to be loyal to his unheralded, barely recruited new player, so the coach brought him along. Suddenly, a guard who was ignored by major conference schools otherwise had a home in the Big Ten, but he didn't necessarily have the Big Ten attitude yet. In fact, he was so timid about his abilities that he actually asked Pitino if he could redshirt right away -- a request his coach denied.
By the end of the year, McNeil had become a nice little defensive specialist, providing a handful of beneficial minutes off the bench. But fast forward to this preseason, and you'll see a different player. One whose added new elements (see jumpshot) to his game. One whose confidence seems to have quadrupled.
"He's not an overly confident kid at all," Pitino said last month. "I tell him all the time, you've worked really, really hard. You're a good player. Now show it.
The evidence of that began during the Gophers' Maroon-and-Gold scrimmage last month. McNeil led both teams with 20 points and charged at the basket with an aggressiveness we hadn't seen from him. He hit three-pointers. He talked on the court. In a timeout, he even called a play for himself, something that would have never happened last year. In an exhibition against Minnesota Duluth, he was solid again, finishing with 15 on 6-for-7 shooting from the field. Pitino has started noticing his voice during huddles.
All the while, he's been humble and unassuming in a way that few high major Division I college athletes are. After the win over Duluth, he was asked about the competition for the starting small forward spot, which Pitino has said was "neck-in-neck" between McNeil and JUCO transfer Carlos Morris all summer.
"I would say that the competition is over," he said, noting his goal with Morris over the summer wasn't necessarily to win the job, but for the pair to make each other better. "Because Los is pretty good at the spot he's at right now, and I'm pretty good coming off the bench."
Already, Gophers fans have gotten excited, and understandably so since McNeil definitely was not slated as a major scoring option if we were going to draw up the offensive breakdown this summer.
Friday was a reminder that more patience will be needed -- both from Gophers fans, and from McNeil for himself. We hadn't seen that version of McNeil in some time -- the version that was sent reeling when he made mistakes and mentally took himself out of the game when he was reprimanded. This year, Pitino will be much harder on him because he knows that after a summer of improvements, McNeil is now capable of more.
The growth of McNeil, as it seemed to Gopher fans seeing him for the first time since April, won't happen overnight. He'll have rough patches like the one he had against Louisville. But a year ago, McNeil wouldn't have even gotten those minutes. Pitino trusts him more now. He, like the rest of the team, needs time most of all.
McNeil, more than anyone, realizes that. After hitting three of four three-pointers in last month's exhibition, the sophomore knew he wasn't there yet.
"He would probably still say I can't shoot," McNeil said of his coach. "We've still got to work tomorrow, and the next day."