The Washington Times - October 11, 2008, 08:42AM

While much of the football team was fleeing town to head home or just simply escape an all-encompassing regimen for a few days, I was in College Park yesterday to get a jump start on basketball issues.

And when it comes to Maryland, let’s face it: Issue No. 1 is the frontcourt.

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It is fair at this juncture to call this a source of uncertainty. James Gist and Bambale Osby are gone, and the folks who will be filling in the blanks are senior Dave Neal, sophomores Jerome Burney, Braxton Dupree and Dino Gregory and freshman Steve Goins.

Here’s betting coach Gary Williams will vociferously argue this isn’t a weakness. For now, I’ll pass on bickering over that point. There’s no reason to pick a fight even before practice starts.

But it is a huge question. And my best piece of evidence is that the five frontcourt players own a combined two individual games with at least 20 minutes.

Neal played 20 minutes against North Florida in last year’s opener when Gist and Landon Milbourne were suspended. Dupree played 27 minutes (and scored a career-high 14 points) against Lehigh when Osby sat out with a stomach virus.

Dupree followed that performance with a 10-point outing against Illinois, then gradually further down the rotation – mostly because of conditioning issues.

After chatting with Dupree for about 15 minutes yesterday – and getting a look at how much better shape he’s in – that won’t be a problem this year.

The sophomore said he’s down to 264 pounds after playing last year around 280. The eyeball test would suggest he’d lost much more than 16 pounds, which means some of that weight was redistributed into muscle rather than simply shed.

This by itself isn’t convincing enough for people to realistically expect an NCAA tournament berth and a record above .500 in the ACC. After missing the tournament in three of the last four years, the Terps no longer should be penciled in as a remotely sure thing.

But it looks like Dupree has a chance to be an effective post presence this season, and that’s good news for a program that both needs as many capable forwards as it can get and has been starved for blatantly positive developments since last season’s late tailspin.

Patrick Stevens