Tuesday, March 3, 2009

God didn't bless me with athleticism; he blessed me with intelligence and fundamentals

Maryland center Dave Neal is listed as 6-7 on the roster, though he admits he's closer to 6-6.

The only senior on the Terps roster, Neal is "a vital element and an embodiment of an underdog Terp team."

"I would love to have athleticism - just a tiny bit. And if I did, I think it would make me a whole different player," he said. "But God didn't bless me with athleticism; he blessed me with the intelligence and the fundamentals of the game."

Growing up, Neal was a standout goalkeeper in soccer, an outstanding swimmer, and, as a 6-foot-3 12-year-old, a homerun-hitting baseball player. ("He was so big that if he just made contact he would hit home runs," his mother, Kathy Neal, said.)

Despite friendly advice to push their son to play football, Neal's parents had other ideas.

"All of my friends all said, 'Why are you wasting your time? Get him into football. The kid can never make it [in basketball]. He doesn't jump very high,'" the elder Dave Neal said. "I said, 'I think it could work.'"

After a s0-so high school season as a junior, Neal had a break-out year as a senior, averaging 20 points and 13 rebounds to lead his team to a 31-3 record. Neal's father remembers when Maryland coach Gary Williams called to offer his son a scholarship.

"It was kind of a tear-jerking experience," his father said. "Dave has internal expectations, but he probably doesn't share them because sometimes they're a little high-standard."

During his first three seasons at Maryland, "Neal was relatively ineffective (due mostly to a lingering shoulder injury), averaging 1.6 points in 62 games. When he entered the game, he was often greeted by the fans to mock cheers. He was the slow and heavy white guy whom people poked fun at. Yet he was the Terps' lone player in his class."

One of Neal's teammates notes how much Neal has developed in four years.

"It's unbelievable - I came here [his sophomore year], he didn't play at all. [Last year] he played a little bit. Now he's just our center. It's funny, but he works hard. A lot of people don't give him credit, but he's a smart player."

On a typical night in the ACC, Neal faces centers who are two-, three-, and four-inches taller than he is. "Without the size or leaping ability to collect droves of boards, Neal focuses on boxing out his assignment and lets his teammates control most rebounds."

Before the Terps played North Carolina for a second time, Neal said he'd use his intelligence and positioning to stop leading scorer Tyler Hansbrough. He did just that, limiting Hansbrough to 11 points and drawing a key charge from the reigning player of the year in the second half. [Down by nine at halftime, Maryland won in OT.]

According to this article, "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," Coach 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."

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.

Neal's impact has been felt beyond the box score. His teammates say he's the genuine leader of a scrappy Maryland team.

"Dave puts this team together," sophomore forward Dino Gregory said. "He puts the team on his back when he can. He's an extremely hard worker, and that shows on the court."

Says junior forward Landon Milbourne
: "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. And it really helps, especially coming from a guy that's been here so long and has been through a lot with this program."