- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Take a survey of the Maryland basketball team, and Dave Neal is probably the least likely of anyone in the Terrapins‘ rotation to make a highlight-reel play.

The senior forward is neither a dunk maestro nor a shot-swatter, nor does he possess unlimited range. His options include a step-back jumper and an underhand scoop shot - hardly staples for most guys in Division I.

Or younger than 40, for that matter.

They are, coach Gary Williams said, “YMCA moves.” And while Neal even looks the part - at 6-foot-7 and 263 pounds, no one mistakes him as the Terps’ greatest athlete - he also has emerged as a vital component in Maryland’s solid start.

“I’m not going to jump or dunk over somebody, so one of my goals is to get it up on the backboard, so if they block it, it’s still goaltending,” said Neal, whose Terps (11-2) host Morgan State (5-8) on Wednesday. “My solid game, it’s something I’m stuck with, and I’ll live with it. It’s done well for me, so I can’t complain.”

Nor should he, not after his insertion into the starting lineup has coincided with Maryland’s seven-game winning streak. The Terps are unbeaten when Neal starts - he also earned a nod in last season’s opener. With 7.2 points and 4.2 rebounds a game, he is the steadiest of Maryland’s interior options.

It’s probably a bit of a surprise, perhaps even to Neal. He was used sparingly as a freshman, then was praised more for his ability to deliver inbounds passes than for scoring and rebounding his next two seasons.

“I never thought I’d be a starter,” Neal said. “Coming in here, I knew my role freshman year was going to be more of a role player and practice player, and I was going to have to work for whatever I was going to get. I’ve been working hard ever since I’ve been here, and things have paid off.”

Left shoulder injuries didn’t help. He suffered a torn labrum in 2007, then separated the shoulder in the second game of his junior year. The problems had hampered him in some form for at least the previous two seasons and prevented him from establishing a larger role in the rotation.

Neither injuries nor opportunities are a problem this year. Neal already has career highs in points, rebounds and minutes, and he likely will surpass his three-season totals in each category before the end of the month.

“I think Dave is an interesting case to look at,” Williams said. “How good could he have been if he wasn’t hurt? So far he’s been healthy. Maybe he could have been able to play this well those first three years. … Anytime you know how to play basketball, there’s a place for you. I think Dave has found his niche.”

Neal’s knowledge is the sort picked up out of necessity. At times, Williams will point out Neal’s unorthodox approach during practice. But it’s not new; Neal’s favorite move - the underhand scoop from either hand - was part of his game in high school.

Of course, teammates are often amused to see the quirky shots Neal will hoist, especially since most of them would never dream of trying such things.

“He has some unathletic moves a lot of times, and we give him a hard time about it,” guard Eric Hayes said. “But he gets it done somehow. He’s smart enough that he knows the angles and how to get his shot off.”

It’s worked fine in nonconference play, though even Williams admits it remains uncertain whether he can remain effective against larger ACC teams. Still, Neal is a crucial piece for the Terps and is savoring the platform his unconventional game has landed him this season.

“I’m not athletic. I’m an old-school player,” Neal said. “I do all the fundamentals. People call me ‘YMCA,’ but I still score. In the Michigan State game, the commentators called me a ‘YMCA player.’ It’s my role, but I’m fine with it. If I keep playing well, I’ll use my YMCA skills to outdo some of those big players. It’s YMCA, and it’s going to be that way. It’s not going to change. I’ve played that way my whole life.”

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