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Gold Bond

Jerel McNeal (left) and Maurice Acker (right) can laugh about it, but they love to argue. Scott Powers

Jerel McNeal stops mid-sentence as Maurice Acker laughs. The two are in the midst of one of their regular arguments, this time a name game discussion about an old friend.

"What?" McNeal asks.

"You said Brandon transferred back to Hillcrest," Acker replies.

McNeal, slightly annoyed, corrects him: "No, I said you transferred back to Hillcrest."

And the conversation rolls on.

Acker and McNeal, two key parts to Marquette's multi-guard rotation, sit side-by-side on the second floor of the Alumni Memorial Union. Everyone around them is studying for finals. They, like always, are arguing about something trivial.

"People who don't see us, they're like, 'Ya'll argue like brothers,'" McNeal says. "We're always fighting or arguing stuff like that. We're so close that it's nothing we see as a big deal. It's normal for us."

For as long as they have been together, they might as well be siblings.

It started when they both enrolled in fifth grade at St. John's in Country Club Hills, Ill. They struck up a fast friendship that stayed that way even though neither lasted long at the school. In a year's time, they'd actually transferred to rival junior highs. But they soon discovered that the basketball gods had fated them to play in the same backcourt.

McNeal and Acker reunited to play for the Country Club Hills All-Stars in the summer of 2000, the first of five consecutive summers the two shared a backcourt as they grew from junior high kids into high school stars. They even won a national AAU title, manning the backcourt for MeanStreets, a program started by former NFL wide receiver Tai Streets.

In the Chicago high school scene, where who you play for often has little to do with where you live, Acker first chose the all-boys private Mount Carmel, former home of Donovan McNabb and Antoine Walker, while McNeal opted for the local public Hillcrest. But the two would talk often, and missing the sight of girls, Acker transferred to Hillcrest within that first year. They were the varsity starting backcourt for the Hawks from their sophomore seasons on. As seniors, Hillcrest was the unanimous preseason No. 1 team in Illinois, and they both ended their careers as all-state guards.

That's when it looked like the partnership would end, as McNeal signed with Marquette and Acker with Ball State.

"When we talked about it, we said, 'We're going to miss playing with each other,'" McNeal said. "We had been playing together for so long. We had that bond. I have no idea how it came to transpire, but he ended up back here somehow, some way."

McNeal, a 6-foot-3 combo guard, started every game as a freshman and began drawing comparisons to former Golden Eagle Dwyane Wade for his all-around ability. Acker, a 5-8 point guard, was just as impressive in Muncie, Ind., starting every game for the Cardinals. He was even named the Mid-American Conference's rookie of the year in 2006. Throughout that season, the two kept in touch. Then one day, Acker called McNeal and told him Ball State coach Tim Buckley had been fired. He was going to re-open his recruitment.

McNeal went to then-Marquette coach Tom Crean with the news.

"As soon as I told coach Crean about that, he was like, 'See if he wants to come here. We'd love to have him,'" McNeal said.

Like that, Acker and McNeal were together again.

"When I got here, when I came to Marquette, it was back to the old days," Acker said.

Their games had matured apart, but they clicked together again like two magnets.

This is the point in the story where a description of their skills would normally go, but that task is best left up to the players themselves.

Acker on McNeal: "Jerel, he's a versatile player, a complete player. He can take a guy off the dribble. Great passer. Great defender. The best thing about him is he's a competitor -- no matter what we're doing, playing video games or on the court, he wants to be the best, he wants to win in everything he does. That's pretty much Jerel."

McNeal on Acker: "By far the best pure point guard I've ever played with and maybe I'm going to play with for a while. He's the person on his team that makes the game easier for the other four guys. He's the best passer I've ever been around, an unbelievable passer and a real good shooter. More than anything, he just runs his team. He can make a team go and create shots for other people on his team unlike anyone I've seen before."

Notre Dame got to see these scouting reports on display in last year's Big East Tournament quarterfinals. McNeal went off for a career-high 28 points. Off the bench, Acker scored 10 of his 11 points during a 4:07 second-half span.

Heading into Tuesday's showdown with Tennessee, McNeal is averaging 18.2 points, 4.9 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 2.1 steals. He may end up holding the school records for points and steals when his career ends after this season. Acker, a red-shirt junior who splits time with All-American candidate Dominic James, averages 4.1 points as one of Marquette's top subs.

As they've fallen back into step on the court, the off-court friendship has resumed. Their Madden rivalry is backMcNeal claims to be the greatest player of all-time. They began borrowing money from each other when needed. And they argue.

"They're kind of different people," Streets said. "They're different on different things. It makes it healthy that they don't agree on everything."

But the one topic that unites them quicker than any is when others doubt their abilities. They'll go to bat for each other without hesitation. Acker has always had to deal with height questions. Critics once questioned whether McNeal could excel at a high-major level, and now there are doubts whether he can be a staple in the NBA.

"No matter what, we're always going to have each other," McNeal said. "We're like family. At the end of the day, we feel we're on the inside, and everybody else is outside looking in."

For some clips of McNeal and Acker in action, go here.