The Washington Times - April 20, 2009, 01:31PM

Time to finally wrap up the Maryland year in review series. There’s lots of ideas bandied about over the last six months or so, some smart, some not so much.

Of all the things you might have guessed back in October would be written about the Maryland basketball team, the following sentence was nowhere near the top of that list:

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Maryland sure is going to miss Dave Neal next season.

This was, after all, a guy who averaged 1.6 points and 1.1 rebounds over 5.4 minutes in his first three seasons. A guy whose left shoulder was perpetually out of place, leaving him stuck on the bench.

A guy who, in his own words, is slow and unathletic.

But he is pretty smart, sharp enough to view basketball as a path through which someone might actually pay him to travel for a year or two. And after a credible senior season – 8.5 points and 4.3 rebounds in 23.8 minutes as an undersized five – that opportunity could present itself.

Ever-optimistic, Neal was the friendlier face of Maryland basketball in a season when Terps coach Gary Williams was at his most defensive, star Greivis Vasquez was alternately charming and combative and most of the secondary scorers (Landon Milbourne, Eric Hayes and Adrian Bowie) possessed reserved but stabilizing personalities.

Neal, though, was the reliable jokester, even though his steady insistence the Terps would prove their many doubters wrong wasn’t meant to generate laughs. Initially, it was appeared simply to be the sunniness you would expect from an eternally upbeat guy.

Of course, Neal meant it all along. And just as he shrugged off criticism of his game and his physique (a generous 6-foot-7 to go along with 263 pounds), he helped the Terps make an NCAA tournament appearance in a year they weren’t expected to do anything.

Neal effectively embodied this group. As practice commenced, both he and the Terps seemed destined for utterly forgettable seasons. In the end, this year’s team will probably be among the most fondly remembered bunches of Williams’ tenure.

So too will Neal, a one-man senior class who will probably be trying the same step-back 3-pointers and underhanded scoop shots when he’s 44 and playing in Maryland’s annual alumni scrimmage that he did at half that age as a college senior.

His wicked screen on Duke’s Nolan Smith in late February rated among his most cheered moments. Of course, there were some unpleasant times, too – notably getting posterized on his own senior night by Wake Forest’s Jeff Teague – but no season is perfect.

What is interesting is the sort of finish Neal produced. Thanks to that efficient outside shooting, Neal enjoyed a splendid March, averaging 12.1 points while producing six double-digit scoring days. He’d had only nine the rest of his career.

Not only is 12.1 points a game quite a bit for Neal, it’s also rather impressive when compared to finishing flourishes for Maryland scholarship seniors in the past 12 seasons.

Since 1998, Maryland has had 32 scholarship seniors. One didn’t play at the end of his final season because of injury (Obinna Ekezie), and another didn’t reach the end because of ineligibility (Chris McCray).

Of the remaining 30 seniors, Neal’s post-February scoring average ranks 12th. This group, of course, can be broken down into tiers:

TIER DIXON

23.4: Juan Dixon (2002)

TIER TWO GUARD

19.8: Drew Nicholas (2003)
18.5: Mike Jones (2007)
17.2: Sarunas Jasikevicius (1998)

TIER STEADY BIG MAN (and D.J. Strawberry)

16.6: Rodney Elliott (1998)
16.4: Jamar Smith (2004)
15.4: Lonny Baxter (2002)
15.2: Nik Caner-Medley (2006)
14.8: D.J. Strawberry (2007)
14.8: James Gist (2008)

TIER STARTER

13.1: Laron Profit (1999)
12.1: Dave Neal (2009)
12.0: Bambale Osby (2008)
10.3: Ekene Ibekwe (2007)
9.9: Terence Morris (2001)
9.7: Ryan Randle (2003)
9.3: Tahj Holden (2003)
8.9: Byron Mouton (2002)
8.8: Travis Garrison (2006)
8.0: Steve Blake (2003)

TIER ROLE PLAYER

4.0: Terrell Stokes (1999)
4.0: Brian Watkins (1999)
3.2: Sterling Ledbetter (2006)
2.5: LaRon Cephas (2001)
2.3: Calvin McCall (2003)
2.1: Mike Mardesich (2001)
1.8: Matt Kovarik (1998)
0.8: Parrish Brown (2007)
0.5: Mike Grinnon (2005)
0.5: Will Bowers (2007)

When you consider that Neal arguably had a better closing stretch to his college career than either Morris or Ibekwe, it provides some context with which to view his final season. (To be fair to Morris, he had quite a bit of developed talent around him in ‘01).

That is to say, Neal produced more than anyone could have hoped for or dreamed of at the start of the season. He answered the question of whether Maryland had anyone useful in its preseason big man grab bag, even if he did so in unorthodox fashion.

Really, just about everything was unorthodox about Neal, right down to the earnest enjoyment he took out of everything.

He’d snicker when he would manhandle a flustered forward much bigger than he was when a referee would finally provide relief and call him for a foul.

He savored every last huge 3-pointer he made, even if his celebrations looked, well, uncoordinated.

He gazed at the assembled media horde with amusement as he sat in front of microphones with a practice jersey and bare feet, probably deep down wondering just how he’d gone from benchwarmer to a man regularly in the spotlight in so short a time.

And in many ways, those moments typified Neal’s final season. He was in on the joke, appreciating every second of an improbable season for both himself and his team.

But he never was the joke. He just went to work each day, uncovering ways to be effective despite giving up size and athleticism to nearly every starting five he encountered.

It turned out he was one of Maryland’s more valuable players this season. And, yes, the Terps sure will miss him next season.

That’s what usually happens when a guy maximizes his talent – an elusive feat Neal certainly achieved in his college swan song.

Patrick Stevens