Oklahoma center Jamuni McNeace never hated basketball. It just was, “never really his thing," as roommate Matt Freeman explained it.
That has started to change.
In his fifth year at OU, the 6-foot-10, 232-pound redshirt senior is an integral part of the team, averaging 9.9 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game heading into Tuesday's 6 p.m. game against Notre Dame at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
As far as his coaches are concerned, he's always had elite-level talent. Now, with the spotlight of being OU's only experienced center, his game has looked more versatile than ever.
“You have god-given talent that honestly a small percentage of the people in this world can do, with a 7-3 wingspan, a guy that can jump out of the gym,” said assistant coach Carlin Hartman, McNeace's position coach. “He's got great hands and can finish over either shoulder, right-handed and left-handed, there are not a lot of people in the world who can do what he does.”
But McNeace has never been overly passionate about basketball. It stems from his freshman year at Allen (Texas) High School, when he was cut from the team.
“I just gave up on it,” McNeace said. “I had moved to Texas my freshman year and I moved back to Illinois my sophomore year. In Illinois, there was a basketball coach that saw me in the hallway.”
That coach was Ronnie Wilcox, who did a double take when he saw a then-6-7, athletic McNeace walking around his school.
“He got me in the gym, and said, 'Hey man, come out for the team. You've got a big body, good frame. Work with me,'” McNeace said.
So the two did, with McNeace taking advantage of his nine-inch growth spurt between his freshman and sophomore year. Through Wilcox's, and his father, James', connections, McNeace worked his way onto an AAU team out of New Mexico called the D1 Ambassadors.
While he still didn't live and breathe the sport, he started to realize what basketball could do for him.
“It got me traveling,” McNeace said. “That was the first time I had ever seen mountains. I got to go to California, that was the first time I had seen a beach. I've gotten to go to Vegas, Italy, the Bahamas, twice. I got to go to Australia. There are a lot of things I wouldn't have done if I didn't play. I'm really thankful for that.”
He's also gotten an education and a new direction. After starting his college career as a psychology major, he completed his undergraduate degree in exercise science and is working on a masters in sports business administration.
“I'm trying to figure out how injuries happen, how to prevent that,” McNeace said. “We've got a good staff to help educate me a little more, and that's probably what I'm going to do after I'm done playing.”
His coaches would like to seem him play a little longer.
Their main pitch is that a few years making NBA salary is a pretty good kickstart for anyone's career.
“When you're a coach, it's your passion, and you can see the kind of talent he has, you're just constantly asking, 'Why not do both?'” Hartman said. “'Basketball can be a financial means for the other things you want to do in life.' He loves people. He wants to work with underprivileged kids and people. So let basketball do that for you.”
A few years back that might have been a hard sell.
McNeace would rather spend endless hours researching button combinations in Mortal Kombat, a video game in which Freeman denies anyone can "be better than him.”
Or baking. McNeace made a red velvet cake for Christian James' birthday that has quickly worked its way in OU basketball lore.
But as this year started, whether it was because of McNeace's increased role or a potential career on the horizon, he's taken his game much more seriously.
Hartman really noticed it after a few rough games to start the season.
“He had an up and down game against Rio Grande Valley, a not-so-great performance at UTSA and then, the Wofford game, he didn't play well at all,” Hartman said. “We got in the gym, got about a half an hour workout in, his mindset was different, his approach was different."
Coaches believe he can sustain that mindset, and McNeace is convincing when he says he has a new outlook.
“I've learned to love it more than I used to,” he said. “When I first got here, I was just a kid. Even two to three years ago, I really wasn't that interested in it much. But as I've been around it more, I've tried to like it more. I actually like watching film now, not just film of myself, but our opponents.”
Against North Texas last week, McNeace had his third-ever double-double, 15 points and 11 rebounds. He was the dominant force his coaches thought he could be when they recruited him.
“He's starting to come on,” Hartman said. “He's starting to figure it out that he's got a responsibility to this team to perform like that every night.”
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