The Washington Times - December 23, 2008, 10:42AM

Had some shopping to do in College Park early yesterday afternoon —- which was a smart place to buy gifts, since the town just lost a substantial portion of its population for the next six weeks —- and wound up combining errands and ducked in for a haircut.

I walk in, and there’s Dave Neal waiting in line for a pregame buzz.


Let’s be sure of one thing —- Neal is no Samson, since hours after his hair was shorn he went off for 12 points in the first half of last night’s 67-51 victory over American.

To put that in context, Neal had 12 points in two of his previous 71 career games at Maryland. Unsurprisingly, Neal said it was his best half since he’d come to play.

That, of course, is because it was.

The Terrapins have yielded some interesting individual performances so far this season. Landon Milbourne‘s led the team in scoring three games running. Adrian Bowie looks like he could be a steady point guard option going forward. Dino Gregory‘s established himself as well.

But Neal is an interesting piece who frankly has played a lot better than pretty much anyone would have guessed.

The last three years, Neal has dealt with his share of injuries. I thought of him more as the Terps’ entertaining resident bracketologist than as a potential starter (then again, with the plethora of bigs in recent seasons, no one did). When coach Gary Williams mentioned Neal, he usually described the 6-foot-7 forward as the team’s best inbound passer.

That’s sort of like if a marching band member’s best instrument was listed as “cymbals.” That’s nice, certainly, and you’re part of a group and contributing in some way. But it sure isn’t going to draw more attention than “scoring” or “swatting shots” (or, in the band analogy, tuba or trumpet).

Last year, you knew Neal could play about 10 unoffensive minutes each night. He’d get a few rebounds. He’d be in the right place at the right time. He wouldn’t mess up (only nine turnovers in 170 minutes).

He also wouldn’t score very much, if at all.

All those basics are still there, but the scoring is growing —- somewhat out of necessity. He’s 9-for-18 in his attempts from 3-point land (which, you might be surprised to learn, is nearly double the five  3-pointers Milbourne, Cliff Tucker and Sean Mosley have combined for), and he’s reached double figures in four of the last eight games.

His best games —- Michigan State, Michigan and American —- came against reputable opponents, so it’s not like he’s feasting on lousy foes, either. In the last month, he’s become a guy who might be able to play 20 credible minutes on most nights.

The dominant question concerning the Terps this offseason was whether they would have a frontcourt, especially with the questionable pieces assembled. While Neal isn’t going to be confused for an NBA lottery pick, he could be a pivotal player of Maryland is going to emerge as a contender to play in the second half of March.

And regardless of a response to a haircut, that’s a strong position for the Terps’ only senior to be in.

—- Patrick Stevens