Senior Dave Neal Faces Final Game as Maryland Terrapins Take On Wake Forest in ACC Men's Basketball
Tuesday, March 3, 2009
Dave Neal grins as judiciously as he plays. Maryland's stocky senior forward is either the most obnoxious post player in the Atlantic Coast Conference or the craftiest, depending on one's perspective, and you can always tell when Neal knows that decision is being made.
With a little more than 14 minutes remaining Sunday night at North Carolina State, Neal planted his left knee against Wolfpack forward Ben McCauley's right thigh and latched onto McCauley's hip. Positioning, for a guy who says he's "6-6 on a good day" and is regularly asked to guard the opposing team's tallest player, is crucial.
McCauley tried to use all of his 6-foot-9 frame to separate himself from Neal's side. But when an entry pass came toward McCauley, who was stationed just outside the lane, Neal swiveled around McCauley's hip and swatted away the ball. A whistle blew. A foul was called. Neal turned away and grinned.
"I was just playing some physical basketball, and I love it when I do that," Neal said after another remarkable, if confounding, performance. "He called a foul there -- I don't know if it really was a foul, but, I mean, I was just having fun out there. That's what I like to do. I had a good time, and it was just a fun game."
Neal's genuine and deep appreciation of the opportunity he has been given this season -- to start the majority of games for a major conference Division I program -- makes him rare. Earlier this year, he admitted he never thought he would be a full-time starter at Maryland (18-10, 7-7 ACC).
Tonight against No. 10 Wake Forest (22-5, 9-5), as the lone senior on a team with a shot at an unlikely NCAA tournament berth, Neal's contributions will be recognized in front of possibly the final Comcast Center crowd for which he will play. He has started 22 of Maryland's 28 games this season and is averaging 7.6 points and 4.3 rebounds per contest.
But his impact on a relatively inexperienced squad extends beyond what statistics indicate, teammates say.
"A lot of seniors in the country, you can't do more for the team cause you're more of a practice player, but Dave, I mean, that's not true at all," sophomore forward Dino Gregory said. "Dave puts this team together. He puts the team on his back when he can. He's an extremely hard worker, and that shows on the court."
Neal's physical limitations will be on display once again tonight for all to see. The Demon Deacons offer three starters who are 6-9 or taller, and it will be up to Neal to position himself and his team for a chance to be successful.
Thus far in ACC play, Neal has held ground by acknowledging his shortcomings. He fronts his opponent when he can to deny entry passes. When stuck behind, he nudges and prods his man ever so subtly, until the basket is further than an explosive power move away.
"When you're not as big or whatever, then position becomes important," Maryland Coach Gary Williams said. "If you're much bigger or much quicker or you've got much greater leaping ability, then you can kind of use your athletic ability to play against a player. But Dave's not that type of player, so Dave has to work hard on maintaining his position with his man and the ball. . . . And Dave's done a pretty good job of that for us this year."
Offensively, Neal utilizes what Williams has described as "YMCA moves," because they're typically in the arsenal of rec league players twice Neal's age. His shots are based on timing and leverage, rather than brute force. And by now, opponents have learned that leaving Neal open along the perimeter is unwise. He is shooting 32.3 percent from three-point range, third best on the team.
Much like his team's late-season surge, few observers saw Neal's production coming. This has been his first fully healthy season at College Park, one in which he has taken on a significant role for a team in need of leadership. He said recently that playing professionally abroad is now a post-college option, an unrealistic notion before his senior campaign began.
"He's always one of those guys to speak up and tell what's on his mind and say we need to calm down or we need to get focused or we need to do this and that," junior forward Landon Milbourne said. "And it really helps, especially coming from a guy that's been here so long and has been through a lot with this program."