By John Millikan Messenger-Inquirer | Posted: Monday, February 2, 2015 12:00 am
There were several reasons Marcus Fillyaw decided to transfer to Kentucky Wesleyan College last summer.
But none were bigger than Patrick Neel.
When the Southern Illinois University transfer came to KWC for a recruiting visit, Neel showed him around campus and answered questions about the program — and that’s all the convincing it took for Fillyaw.
“He was very honest with me, and it seemed like he represented the people here at KWC,” Fillyaw said of Neel. “That’s how it came across than, and it still holds true today.”
Nobody sells KWC basketball better than Neel, a senior forward from Henderson who spent his first three seasons as a walk-on before earning a scholarship from head coach Happy Osborne.
And nobody has represented the Panthers better over the past few years.
“Patrick is what I want Kentucky Wesleyan to be,” Osborne said. “He plays with heart. I think he is in many ways the most valuable player we have. You never have to question where his heart is.”
Loved by both his teammates and his coach, Neel has been a steady leader for KWC and one of the captains on a team that is 16-5 heading into Saturday’s game against Trevecca Nazarene in Nashville, Tenn.
Neel, a 6-foot-5 post playr, is averaging 5.4 points and 3.8 rebounds per game and has an unmatched passion for the game that started back in Henderson but has reached a new level in his final year in a Panthers uniform.
“I have put four years of blood, sweat and tears into this program,” he said. “I have given all I can. I play with a chip on my shoulder. I always felt like I wasn’t the best athlete out there and have tried to go as hard as I possibly can.”
Neel was a three-year letterman and two-year starter at Henderson and finished his high school career with 743 points and 390 rebounds, but he when he joined the Todd Lee-coached Panthers in 2011 he found himself on the end of the bench.
Surrounded by scholarship recruits and upperclassmen, Neel lacked the confidence and self-belief that had been so crucial to his success in high school. As a freshman at KWC, he averaged just 3.4 minutes, 2.0 points and 1.3 rebounds per game — numbers that barely got any better his sophomore year when he averaged 2.2 points and 1.5 rebounds in 7.8 minutes per game.
“Being a walk-on the first few years I really wasn’t encouraged, which was unusual for me because in high school I was very confident in myself,” Neel said. “I lost that the first two years of college.”
In 2013, Osborne helped him find it.
When he took over the KWC program, Osborne was told Neel would be one of his last players off the bench and contribute very little to the team.
Osborne saw something different.
“He was way better than I was told,” Osborne said. “He just wants to win, period. It’s a privilege to coach Patrick. It’s a privilege to be around him every day.”
Under Osborne’s coaching, Neel was a crucial part of last year’s Panthers and started in 11 games, averaging 5.1 points and 3.9 rebounds. It was during the later part of his junior season when Osborne told him that he had earned a scholarship for his senior year, which wasn’t surprising to those around the KWC program.
“Pat is one of the most competitive people I have ever been around,” Fillyaw said. “Every day in practice his goal is to make everybody else better. He is one of the best teammates I have ever had.”
Neel isn’t in the starting lineup this season but is usually on the court when it matters and is making the most of his scholarship opportunity. The Panthers have won 12 of their last 14 games but hit a speed bump two weeks ago with back-to-back losses to Cedarville and Central State.
KWC avoided a three-game losing streak Jan. 22 with a bounce-back win against Davis & Elkins, and Neel finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds for his second career double-double.
“The bottom line is Patrick didn’t want to lose that game,” Osborne said. “Everybody respects Patrick. Everybody sees how much he cares about basketball. He works like crazy for every rebound and wins all the 50-50 balls. He will throw his body anywhere at anytime.
“The key for him is believing in himself. If there was one thing that he might be able to do a little better is to be more steady. Sometimes he lets his emotions run the gamut. But on the other side of that, it’s the emotion and heart that inspires others.”