- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 26, 2008

On any random winter night Ohio University happens to play, it’s safe to assume Maryland’s Dave Neal is jotting a mental note to himself about the Bobcats’ result.

His Terrapins haven’t seen Ohio since absorbing a mid-December loss. But Neal, ever the hoops junkie, knows just how influential the results of Maryland’s opponents can be when the NCAA tournament selection committee reviews the Terps’ worthiness for a berth next month.

Ohio, checking in at a respectable No. 54 in the RPI entering yesterday, is certainly not hurting Maryland. And Neal, who will enter the press room for interviews and convincingly spout off RPIs, is well aware of it.

“I keep track of them,” Neal said. “They’re near the top of their conference, so our loss to them — we shouldn’t have lost to them — but at the end of the year if they win their conference it’s not considered as bad a loss if they’re the best team in their conference.”

So it’s come to this: A bracketologist in the ranks of major college basketball players.

It is an avocation made popular in recent years by a spate of bracket-wielding observers, most notably Joe Lunardi of ESPN.com and Jerry Palm, who operates collegerpi.com.

Maybe it was just a matter of time before a player picked up on it. Lunardi said in an e-mail he’s had general conversations with Xavier’s Stanley Burrell and Bucknell’s John Griffin but nothing too specific.

Then again, it probably makes some sense.

“I mean, I’m not going to get into the NCAA tournament no matter what I think,” Palm said. “I think players have a vested interest in it. [More power to] those that have the time and gumption.”

That isn’t always easy with classes and games and travel. But Neal still will get into some heated discussions with senior guard Jason McAlpin about the merits of teams from across the country.

To Neal, it’s all about possessing an arsenal of knowledge backed by constant research. That means watching plenty of games and reading newspapers in his spare time as part of his preparation.

“I listen to ‘College GameDay’ every Saturday morning and try to see what they have to say and keep track of teams’ RPIs,” Neal said. “The top 25 to me isn’t anything special because some teams to me I don’t believe deserve to be in there. I try to look at teams’ RPIs because that’s what I think they base most of the decision off of.”

“They,” of course, is the catch-all pronoun for the NCAA tournament selection committee that will convene in Indianapolis in a few weeks to choose the 65-team field. And “they” will have their work scrutinized heavily once it is completed.

Until then, everyone will have an opinion. Many coaches will express understandable wariness about RPIs — as Notre Dame’s Mike Brey did as early as December’s Jimmy V Classic — and SOSs and nearly every other acronym imaginable.

But as Neal demonstrates, the information is out there for everyone.

“Players, they know how to use computers — better than me,” said Maryland coach Gary Williams, who is perched squarely in the camp of coaches who try to ignore bracket squawking. “They get it.”

There is a caveat: Neal doesn’t bust out his own bracket. But bring up a team rarely seen on television — Drake, for example — and he will rattle off more than most guys in his position (and probably some of the talking heads, too).

There has yet to be a surge of teammates coming to ask him about the present picture, though there’s always a chance that could change in the coming fortnight.

“He’s a real informed kind of guy,” sophomore forward Landon Milbourne said. “He just knows about everything. He’s into that stuff. Personally, I’m not, but it’s just funny when he comes in here and he can talk for hours about things like that.”

There are fans who can do the same, and some have tapped into the thirst for projections to create a cottage industry. Palm’s Web site long ago sprouted into more than just a hobby, and he is a frequent radio guest at this time of year.

But a player?

“I wondered when some player would decide they like doing that,” Palm said. “I’m a little surprised it hasn’t happened sooner with some bench warmer who’s an engineering student, maybe a 12th man who would get into it and somehow had the time to think about it.”

Neal’s a bit more than that. He averages 2.2 points in 8.2 minutes and provides a breather for Maryland’s frontcourt rotation.

Not to mention some informed insight on the Terps’ postseason chances.

“If the tournament started [last] week, we’d probably be an 8 or 9 seed,” Neal said after Maryland’s victory over Florida State on Feb. 16. “But if we keep winning and playing well and do well in the ACC tournament, we have a chance to be a 4 or 5 seed.”

Those numbers have probably changed after back-to-back losses to Virginia Tech and Miami. And chances are, no one in the Terps’ locker room grasps it any better than their own resident bracketologist.

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