Dave Neal was accustomed to playing -- and succeeding -- among the big boys. Against local and national competition, Neal continually impressed this past season. O'Connell's 6-foot-7 senior forward averaged 19.8 points and 13 rebounds, earning All-Met honors.
But as Neal sat in Gary Williams's office last week, he later admitted, his stomach started to churn.
"Yeah, I was a little nervous, I'm not going to lie," said Neal, who had seen Williams on television plenty of times but had never met the coach in person. "I had a little butterflies in my stomach."
He looked at the pictures around the office. He noticed that everything seemed so . . . red.
Neal had gambled with his senior season. Expecting to play a large role for the Knights, he decided not to accept a scholarship before the season and instead hoped his play would help him earn a scholarship to an ACC school, perhaps Maryland. Maryland assistants Dave Dickerson and Mike Lonergan repeatedly told Neal to wait until after the season and then the Terrapins would make a decision whether to offer Neal a scholarship. Until then, Neal could only watch college games on television and hope.
"I felt like I could definitely play" at Maryland, Neal said. "I felt confident. It wasn't like, 'Wow, I don't know if I can do that.' I felt pretty confident I could play there."
Before Maryland was playing in the NIT, however, Neal had one scholarship offer, to Clemson. And while he was driving to Frostburg to visit a friend last week, Neal's father received a phone call from Williams: The Terrapins wanted to offer Neal a scholarship and invited Neal and O'Connell Coach Joe Wootten to a meeting at Comcast Center this past Wednesday.
At the meeting, according to Wootten, Williams compared Neal to former Maryland standout Lonny Baxter, saying that while both players were undersized for their position, they both had a knack for putting the ball in the basket. Baxter was listed at 6-foot-8 throughout his Maryland career, though he measured in at 6-6 ½ at an NBA predraft camp; he averaged 15 points in his three seasons as a starter at Maryland, helping the Terrapins to two Final Fours and a national championship.
Neal went home without committing just to make sure of his decision. Then, on Thursday, he called Williams to say he was coming to College Park.
There are bound to be questions about whether Neal can play in the ACC, but Wootten is certain that he can.
"My answer to that is in January, February and March of this year, he was the dominant player at this level," Wootten said. "People say he is not big enough and is going to get his shot blocked, but in four years of coaching I don't remember him getting a shot blocked. He's done it against the best level in high school and those guys are the ones who are going to play in college."
Said Neal: "There's not much I can say until I start playing there. Hopefully my play will speak for itself. Hopefully my hard work will pay off."
NCAA regulations prohibit Williams from commenting on recruits until they have signed a letter-of-intent.
With Neal reaching a decision, the lone top senior in the Washington area yet to make a decision is Montrose Christian All-Met center Uche Echefu. Echefu and teammate K.J. Matsui have been in Memphis this week practicing for Sunday's Nike Hoop Summit, and it could be a few more weeks before either reaches a decision.