- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Back at his family’s home in McLean, there is a prize awaiting Dave Neal once his Maryland basketball career concludes.

His mother, Kathy, has collected pictures, articles - anything to stash away in a keepsake scrapbook to lend a reminder of the forward’s final season with the Terrapins.

And maybe offer just a nudge the four-month whirlwind isn’t a mirage.

Neal will play what he hopes is his final game at Comcast Center on Tuesday when Maryland (18-10, 7-7 ACC) meets No. 10 Wake Forest (22-5, 9-5) nearly four years after an early spring phone call from coach Gary Williams triggered an unexpected career in College Park.

Sure, Neal enjoyed a great senior season in high school. And he was a successful local player, a fact Williams makes certain to mention. But take one glance at Neal, and it’s clear he does not pass the eyeball test as a paragon of athleticism.

It hasn’t stopped him from helping a surprising team remain in NCAA tournament contention with a week left in his final season.

“I’m sure people doubted me from freshman year, saying, ‘Dave Neal is never going to play here. He’s not that good. He’s slow, he’s white and he can’t play,’ ” Neal said. “People still talk about it today and say ‘Dave can’t play.’ But the fact I’m playing 25 minutes a game [in league play] here at Maryland, averaging seven points and four rebounds, is something magnificent.”

He is the perfect one-man senior class for an undersized, overachieving lot. Neal’s statistics aren’t gaudy, his style of play far from overwhelming. Yet he hovers about, aggravating opponents with an unconventional approach and a penchant for using his wide frame to set wicked screens, as Duke’s Nolan Smith painfully learned last week.

That play, followed quickly with a 3-pointer, epitomized Neal’s survival in one of college basketball’s toughest conferences. Is it amusing to watch Neal blatantly tangle with a larger player before finally earning a foul, as he did Sunday with N.C. State’s Ben McCauley? Sure.

But the funniest part is that Neal - who admits he is “6-7 on a good day” - is fully cognizant of the situation and snickers at both his own craftiness and the yowls from the crowd.

“He knows his abilities well,” forward Landon Milbourne said. “He knows what he can do and what he can’t do. He’s very good at what he can do.”

Tuesday night provides an opportunity to appreciate those strengths and perhaps wonder how much more Neal would have played earlier in his career had he not suffered repeated left shoulder injuries.

Those problems never surfaced this season, permitting Neal to emerge as Maryland’s most reliable true post player. For a man who had never played more than 20 minutes in a game before this season, Neal’s outing Sunday - 11 points, a career-high 37 minutes and a vital 3-pointer to give Maryland a two-possession lead for good - was emblematic of an ability to extract everything from his talent.

“He’s the type of player who could have really used playing on a consistent basis and being able to lift weights all the time, which he couldn’t do with that shoulder,” Williams said. “We’ll never know how good he could have been, but I know he’s maximizing his senior year right now.”

It might even land him an extended basketball career. Neal said he has received two messages on his Facebook page from overseas suitors, and he has promised to get in touch with them when the Terps’ season is over. After all, the prospect of being paid to travel and play basketball possesses some appeal.

It also could lead to a far different scrapbook than the one he will take away from Maryland, a place where he has remarkably etched out a niche with the area’s highest-profile college program.

“It’s pretty cool when people recognize you wherever you go,” Neal said. “When I’m out in D.C. walking around the monuments, people go, ‘Oh, look, there’s Dave Neal.’ It’s cool, and [my career is] only going to be for four years, so I’m going to enjoy it. But I’m probably going to say next year, ‘Man, I miss those moments when people knew who I was.’ ”

But since he was living out a dream this season, chances are Neal will never forget.

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