When the East Baltimore native and Vermont Academy senior guard arrived at Florida International University, he was greeted to 85-degree weather. Needless to say it didn’t take long for McNeil to start picturing himself going to college at the Sun Belt Conference school.
“I wouldn’t say [I knew] right after I left the visit, but as soon as I touched down at Vermont and the cold weather hit, I knew I wanted to go there.”
After consulting with his family, high school and AAU coaches over the weekend, McNeil made it official with FIU on Sunday night, committing to the Panthers over offers from Rhode Island, Richmond, St. Bonaventure and UAB.
“It feels good,” McNeil said Monday night. “[The visit] was awesome. The campus was nice. Students were nice. It was everything I wanted it to be.”
Even before high school began for McNeil, there was little doubt that he was a Division I-caliber player. The 6-foot-3, 185-pound combo guard starred for Carver as a freshman and fared well with Nike Baltimore Elite on the AAU circuit. But off the court, there were concerns about McNeil getting the education he needed to eventually make it to a Division I university.
So the summer after his freshman year, McNeil left his home in East Baltimore’s Latrobe projects for a dorm room at Vermont Academy in Saxtons River, Vt. The change in lifestyle was a drastic one.
“I think he came here as a kid, a quiet kid from Baltimore who had begun to play at a pretty high level with Bub [Carrington] and Nike Baltimore Elite,” said Vermont Academy coach Jesse Bopp. “This provided a different environment for him socially, academically and athletically. I think I would say the greatest thing that happened here for him is just his maturity as a person. He’s been able to define himself and share himself with the people here.”
It didn’t take long for McNeil to develop into one of the most explosive guards in the ultra-competitive New England Preparatory School Athletic Council. As a junior, McNeil averaged 16 points, five rebounds and five assists for the Wildcats. Looking back, McNeil says his decision to leave Baltimore for Vermont was “probably the best thing for me.”
“If I was not moved to Vermont, I probably would not have worked so hard to achieve my dream,” he said. “That was probably the biggest thing.”
When it came to recruiting, McNeil had no shortage of suitors. Bopp, who compares McNeil to Baltimore natives and former ACC guards Jack McClinton (Miami) and Malcolm Delaney (Virginia Tech), said his star player was looking for a fast-paced style of play. That’s exactly what McNeil found in FIU.
“From a basketball perspective, he’s still a guy that’s terrific at generating offense. He’s a very aggressive offensive player,” Bopp said. “We feel it’s going to be a very seamless transition [for McNeil with] the team and style of play. The offense and defenses are very similar. … Their style of play is pretty much a hectic pace, creating offense and getting up and down. … He has the attributes to score in a variety of ways.”
With the Panthers, McNeil will play for a new coach in Richard Pitino – the son of Louisville coach Rick Pitino. McNeil sees some similarities between playing for FIU and joining Vermont Academy three years ago.
“That’s the thing I love the most,” McNeil said. “Vermont Academy, my first year, Coach Bopp was the new coach and I was one of the first recruits when he was building. So yeah, that’s one of the things I love about FIU.”
McNeil, who plans to study business at FIU, said he’s looking forward to his college future at “another quiet environment … that’s away from Baltimore.” The expectation is for McNeil to make a major impact for the Panthers right away.
“They expect me to just come in, work hard and do what I’ve been doing for Vermont Academy,” McNeil said. “To grind as hard as I can and to get working.”