Passion for the game drives Southeastern guard Veal to new heights

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HAMMOND, La. – When Southeastern Louisiana men’s basketball head coach Jay Ladner, a Southern Mississippi graduate, watches Lion junior guard Marlain Veal play, he’s immediately reminded of another Golden Eagle alum.

“He really reminds me of being a Brett Favre of basketball,” Ladner said of the former Southern Miss and NFL quarterback. “When you watched Brett Favre play football, you always got the impression he just likes being out there and doing what he is doing. Marlain is the same way. You can’t go watch him play and not come away impress with the passion he plays the game with.”

It’s that passion, combined with Veal’s natural ability, that has Ladner describing the 5-foot-9, 145-pound New Orleans native as “pound-for-pound, the best player in the country in Division I.”

“And everybody who knows me knows I wouldn’t say anything like that lightly,” Ladner said. “But I think with his size, there is not a more exciting player. Certainly for what he has done for our program here, our university, I’m just excited we have him for two more years.”

Marlain Veal
Southeastern Louisiana head coach Jay Ladner describes Lion junior guard Marlain Veal as “pound-for-pound, the best player in the country in Division I” (Photo by Randy Bergeron, SLU Public Information).

Southeastern supporters can catch Veal and the Lions for the first time when they play Jackson State in an exhibition at Gulfport High School in Gulfport, Miss. Thursday at 7 p.m. The Lions host William Carey in another exhibition Tuesday, Nov. 7 at 7 p.m. in the University Center before officially opening the 2017-18 campaign at home against Centenary on Friday, Nov. 10 at 7:30 p.m.

Veal caught Ladner’s attention while splaying at Helen Cox High School in Gretna, La. where as a senior, he averaged 15.3 points, 4.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game in being named the Louisiana Sports Writers Association’s Class 5A Player of the Year.

“The same thing you see here,” Ladner said of what he saw in Veal. “You saw a kid with an incredible high motor who just loved to play. He’s at his height of happiness when he is out there on a basketball court. He’s a gym rat. He stays in the gym, whether it’s with our team practicing, with our coaches working out or just playing pick-up ball. He’s one of those rare guys. He just loves to play.”

Southeastern was coming off a 9-23 season in Ladner’s first season when Veal signed with the Lions.

“Just the love that the school showed for me,” Veal said of choosing Southeastern. “The other schools offered me late but Southeastern started talking to me and offered me right away. They came and saw me at home and popped in at my school. Coach Ladner is a great person and I’m glad I made this decision.”

Veal made an immediate impact with the Lions, starting 23 of 33 games as a freshman in 2015-16, averaging 7.3 points per game while recording 98 assists and 40 steals, both second on the squad. He scored in double digits in 12 games, including six straight from Jan. 16-Feb. 6, in helping Southeastern improve to 12-21 and advance to the Southland Conference Tournament.

Veal ramped up his play as a sophomore in 2016-17, earning third-team All-Southland Conference and honorable mention All-Louisiana honors after leading the Lions and finishing 10th in the league with 14.5 points per game. He also finished fifth in the conference in assists per contest (4.5), seventh in steals (1.8 spg) and 10th in 3-point field goal percentage (.400) and assist/turnover ratio (1.2). His 58 steals tied for the fourth most by a Lion in a season while his 144 assists tied for the fifth most.

Veal saved some of his best performances for his home town. He was named Southland Player of the Week after tossing in a game-high 28 points in a 93-76 loss at Tulane in the second game of the season. Then with a berth in the Southland Tournament at stake in the regular season finale, he scored a game-high 23 points in a 63-58 win at eventual league and tournament champion New Orleans. Veal scored 11 of the points in the final 4:15 to help the Lions overcame a 10-point deficit in the final 10:56. He also had career highs with six steals and two blocks while dishing out five assists and grabbing five rebounds in receiving LSWA Men’s Basketball Co-Player of the Week honors.

“They show me love when I go back home so I have to show them love back with my performances,” Veal said. “That’s what I try to do.”

Southeastern finished with its first winning regular season since 2010-11 and advanced to the Southland Tournament for the fifth straight year. The Lions lost to Lamar, 77-65, in the first round to finish at 16-16 overall.

As successful as the season was, Veal and the Lions realize it could have been better as Southeastern lost nine games by single digits.

“That’s a great accomplishment but I feel like we should have won more games than we won,” Veal said of the winning regular season. “This is the year for us. We’re trying to get 20-plus wins this year. I just feel like overall our team has grown so much, especially talent-wise. We have a deep bench. We have two different sets of five who can start a D-I game so I feel going into the season we have great expectations, trying to get a ring this year.”

Veal said he has grown along with the team over the past two seasons.

“I just feel like I am more mature,” Veal said. “I don’t make as many mental mistakes as I used to make. I know the game more going into my third year here.”

Ladner concurred that Veal’s greatest growth has come in his mentally maturity.

“He has certainly come a long way,” Ladner said. “He literally was used to doing whatever he wanted to do when he was in high school with the type of passes he would throw at times. He was out there playing hard and was the same great talent that you see but he made so many mistakes. But he has taken coaching and he is an extremely more mature player. He spends countless hours in there watching film and he wants to get better. His growth has been his maturity mentally. His physical game has always been there.”

Ladner said one area Veal can improve on the court is in taking better care of the ball. While his assist to turnover ratio was one of the best in the conference, Veal also turned the ball over a team-high 119 times.

“He has to cut down on his turnovers,” Ladner said. “He has always been a high-assist guy. He is very unselfish and he has a great ability, but he sometimes does some of the things he could maybe get away with in high school that you can’t get away with in Division I. Sometimes he tries to make too many home run plays when trying to hit the single or bunting the runner over may be the better play. I think he understands that too. I think his assist to turnover ratio will improve this year.”

Also helping Veal this season will be the return of three key components – senior guard Joshua Filmore, senior forward Jordan Capps and junior guard Keith Charleston – who missed all or the majority of last season with injuries. Their presence, along with the return of senior guards Jabbar Singleton and Eddy Polanco, senior forward James Currington and junior forward Moses Greenwood, will help take the pressure off Veal. Sophomore Chris Mejia and junior D’Angelo West, a transfer from Hinds Community College, also add to the depth in the backcourt, allowing Veal more rest after he averaged a team 29.3 minutes per contest a year ago.

“Having Keith and certainly Josh and Jordan back, it probably takes the pressure off some of the other guys as well,” Ladner said. “With some more experienced guard play coming back behind him, it certainly helps him. There were times last season when we really couldn’t get him off the floor without really being concerned. With the way we ask him to really get up there and pressure the ball, he’s going to have to have a break every now and then. Forty minutes is a long game and our season is incredibly long, so having more quality depth and more better players than we’ve had at any point since I’ve been here is going to help him and serve him well in the long run.”

Even with the return of the two seniors and a six-man senior class overall, Ladner expects Veal to again be a leader on the team.

“He has really developed into our team leader even as a junior,” Ladner said. “We do have some other outstanding leaders on our team but Marlain is the guy who has the ball in his hands. He is the guy who sets our defense, but he is also the guy who runs our offense. I’ve really been pleased with the way he has assumed his leadership role on the team.”

It is a role Veal takes seriously, whether on or off the court.

“My role is always be a leader and set the tone in games, practice, study hall, in the weight room, anything that involved the team,” Veal said.

Both Veal and Southeastern head into the 2017-18 season with heightened expectations. The Lions have been picked third in the conference by the league coaches and sports information staffs, their highest predicted finish since the 2010-11 season. Veal was named to the Preseason All-Southland second team after earlier being named to the 14-member Mid-Major Dream Team by College Court Report, the Canadian-based NCAA college basketball website.

“Anybody who knows me knows I always play with a chip on my shoulder,” Veal said of meeting those expectations. “I always play hard, always try to do my best and be the best player on the court and that’s just how I always been since I was young.”

And while Veal is driven to make first-team all-league and be the player of the year, there is something else that is driving him even more.

“My motivation is to always win,” Veal said. “I’m trying to put a ring on my finger before I leave here. It might be two.”

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