Postseason Evaluations: Dave Neal
This week, Terrapins Insider is taking a look back at the Maryland season that concluded last weekend. Each day will feature posts on the performances of specific players and Coach Gary Williams.
The area around his eyes was red and a little puffy, but, as always, Dave Neal answered every last question thrown his way. He sat in a locker room at Sprint Center in Kansas City on Saturday afternoon with a towel draped over his shoulders and looked directly at each inquisitor. His responses were frank and lengthy. His baritone voice never wavered.
“As I said earlier, only one team ends the season on a good note and that’s the national champion,” Neal said. “We had a great year overall. If you look back at some of the wins we’ve had this year against Wake Forest, North Carolina, Michigan State, I mean, coming into this season people didn’t think we had a chance of being a great team, and I think we proved to a lot of people that we were a great team the way we finished the season and going back to the NCAA tournament and winning one game in the tournament.
“I’m going to miss this team a lot. This team has huge heart, and we fought day in and day out in practice and in games. Today, we didn’t quit for 40 minutes. We went until the buzzer went off in the second half.”
In many respects, Neal’s performance this season was emblematic of the one put forth by the entire team. He was many things most observers figured he would not be during his senior campaign -- a full-time starter, a key contributor, a capable post player who could find ways to hold his own in the paint on most nights, a team spokesman.
At the outset, Neal simply was the token senior. He was named one of the team’s three captains, presumably by default. The thinking went that Neal would play his 10 to 15 minutes per game off the bench, be an enthusiastic sideline cheerleader and then receive an obligatory salute on senior night.
But Neal’s work ethic befitted a player who understood the good fortune of his circumstance. A short while after being inserted into the starting lineup seven games into the season, Neal acknowledged he never imagined he would be a starter at Maryland. And he competed like someone who embraced such an opportunity.
Neal often was outmatched, especially once ACC play began. The players he was assigned to guard typically were at least three inches taller and possessed more conventional post moves. Neal adapted. He nudged. He prodded. He sidestepped. If he was going to be effective, he knew he had to outmaneuver his opponent on both ends of the court.
He also knew he was going to take a beating. After each of the first few ACC games, Neal half-jokingly would complain about his “sore ribs.” Certainly, he was no all-conference defender. His physical limitations were too severe. But he was not a liability, either. And given the size and experience of Maryland’s other interior parts, “not a liability” worked just fine.
Neal proved to be even more of a pleasant surprise on offense, where his range allowed him to stretch opposing defenses and thus open up driving lanes and rebounding opportunities for his teammates. Neal was just accurate enough from three-point range (he shot 38.5 percent for the season) that opposing teams had to respect his ability.
By the end of the year, opposing teams actually were game-planning specifically to shut Neal down. This fact took even Neal by surprise.
But his play had earned such recognition. On senior night, Neal was given the salute everyone thought he would receive, though by that point it was anything but obligatory. The Comcast Center crowd was delirious as Neal tallied 19 points and nearly led Maryland to an upset win over Wake Forest. In the loss, Neal shot 5 of 6 from three-point range and also grabbed six rebounds.
Until the very end of that game, a sheepish grin was plastered on Neal’s face. It was the same grin he adorned at some point during almost every game this season. It was the same grin that popped up when discussing his bracketology expertise and how he wouldn’t mind advising President Obama on his future NCAA tournament picks.
Neal was well aware of his shortcomings, but he always seemed to appreciate the chance to address them, game after game. Perhaps no other Terrapin this season surpassed individual expectations like Neal did, and nearly every other Terrapin credited Neal’s leadership as a contributing factor to the team’s late-season push.
Next year, taller players will be added to Maryland’s roster, and one of them likely will fill the vacancy left in the starting lineup by Neal’s graduation. Neal, meantime, will try to earn a spot on a roster overseas.
What did you all think of Neal’s season? How would you evaluate his performance? Who do you think will fill the leadership void left by Neal’s departure?
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