The only time Daquein McNeil has ever set foot in the state of Minnesota was for an AAU tournament in suburban Minneapolis one year ago. Outside of a trip to the Mall of America, the 6-foot-3, 190-pound combo guard says he doesn't remember much about visiting the North Star State.
But despite his lack of familiarity with Minnesota, McNeil is "really excited" to spend the next four years of his life there. The East Baltimore native and Vermont Academy senior committed to the Golden Gophers on Wednesday, becoming the first commitment of the Richard Pitino era.
"It feels really good," McNeil said. "I was just very grateful [to be offered by Minnesota]. In college basketball this year, [the Big Ten] was the best conference. I know how much work it takes. As soon as I figure out coming [to campus] this summer, we're going to go to work."
Dating back to his freshman year at Carver, McNeil had been pegged by most local basketball observers as a future high-major player. Playing for Vermont Academy in Saxtons River, Vt., and suiting up for Nike Baltimore Elite during the summer, did nothing to change those perceptions.
But during the recruiting process, McNeil bonded with Pitino, who was heading into his first season as Florida International's coach, and Kimani Young, a Golden Panthers assistant. So McNeil, citing his relationship with the FIU coaches, bypassed high-major looks and pledged to the Sun Belt school.
McNeil said he wanted to play for Pitino "because he's so young, and the energy he has. I just like something about him. He's just a good guy. I like his style of play. It's similar to how we play at Vermont."
When Pitino landed the Minnesota job earlier this month, there were definitely nervous moments for McNeil.
"I was kind of shocked at first," he said. "But then the connection that we have, I kind of knew he was going to take me, or at least call and see if I wanted to go."
FIU, which hired former Norfolk State coach Anthony Evans on Monday, granted McNeil a release from his letter of intent Tuesday. One day later, Pitino had his first commitment.
"It was a long process," McNeil said. "[FIU was] very reasonable about it. They understood why I wanted a release. … I was set on playing for Pitino."
Vermont Academy coach Jesse Bopp was among the group of basketball followers who always thought McNeil was a high-major talent. After coaching McNeil for the past three years, Bopp is confident that his star player has found "the correct fit" in Minnesota.
"I've always thought he was a guy who could play at this level," Bopp said. "I still thought his decision to play in Conference USA [which FIU will join] was totally predicated on playing for someone like Richard Pitino and Kimani Young. ... I have no doubt he is capable of playing in this league. Day is a kid who has experienced a lot in his life. All those things need to be taken into consideration when you talk about what he's done and what he's gone through."
McNeil, who averaged 19 points as a senior and earned second-team All-New England Preparatory School Athletic Council honors, could play the 1 or the 2 for Minnesota. Bopp likened McNeil's game to that of Louisville's Russ Smith.
"I'm not saying [McNeil is] Russ Smith, but playing with fearlessness, playing with tenacity, playing with the desire to attack," Bopp said. "Day is a kid that scores in a lot of different ways. He's an improved decision maker that played some point for us. A lot of people think [Gophers star] Andre Hollins is moving to the 2, his natural position. They need a true point guard. I don't necessarily think Day is a true point guard. Very few guys today are lead guards. [Where McNeil plays is] Richard Pitino's decision based on how hard he works."
McNeil was admittedly looking forward to spending his college years in Miami, but he's excited now to make an unexpected return to Minnesota, where one year ago he averaged 10.3 points in four games for Nike Baltimore Elite.
"It's time to work this summer, put in a lot of work," McNeil said. "I know Minnesota is a good basketball place. … [I plan to] just come in and be a hard worker, do the right things and respond to adversity."
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