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Neal Hits the Books and the Court in N. Ireland

Former Maryland forward Dave Neal took two months off of basketball at the conclusion of the 2009-09 season. The Terrapins had finished 21-14 and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, far greater accomplishments than many observers believed them capable of at the season's outset.

Neal himself turned in a performance far superior to the expectations of outsiders, who looked at his 6-foot-7, 263-pound frame and initially saw merely an undersize post player in a league stocked with several more physically intimidating front courts. While admirable, Neal's numbers (8.5 points and 4.3 rebounds per game) don't do justice to the impact he had on the team. He reflected on an incredible season and decided to call it a career.

"I was kind of ready to give it up, and I was either considering going to coaching or going back to my high school and just working around the area," Neal said last week in a phone interview.

But then Neal received a phone call in June from Davidson Coach Bob McKillop, who had found an opportunity he thought Neal might want to consider: Neal could play basketball at the University of Ulster in Belfast while obtaining a master's degree in sports management.

"That's kind of hard to turn down," Neal said. "With the economy right now and the job situation, I might as well go ahead and get my masters, especially if it's going to be paid for."

Neal will depart for Northern Ireland, a place he's never been, on Aug. 26. Preseason practice starts three days later. First game is Oct. 4.

The arrangement appears to be ideal in all aspects for Neal. He'll attend class Monday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. He'll practice with a team that plans to play him at his natural position -- power forward -- and to afford him the status that accompanies being the squad's lone American player.

Neal said around 250 applicants applied for the scholarship he received. In most other years, the University would have selected two American players, but because of economic constraints, only one was selected this year. Consequently, much will be expected of Neal, who said he's been told he'll play around 40 minutes per game and only come out if he's hurt or in foul trouble.

"They expect a lot out of you," Neal said. "I think I'm ready to live up to it. I'm excited to get back to competitive basketball. Now that I'm starting to work out again, I'm starting to get that itch to get back in the game and play a little five-on-five."

As part of his master's program, Neal must complete an internship in the sports management field. Should he perform well this coming season, there's a chance Neal could be selected to play next summer for the Melbourne Tigers in Australia. He'd be able to complete his internship while with the team, which has a partnership with the league in which Ulster competes.

"What this situation puts me into is it's a semipro league for a pro team in Australia," Neal said. "It's like a farm league for this team in Australia."

None of those possibilities would have been within Neal's grasp had it not been for McKillop, who has known the player and his family for a few years. The Neals housed Davidson sophomore forward Frank Ben-Eze during his final two years at Bishop O'Connell High. After Ben-Eze chose Davidson, McKillop and the Neals kept in touch, an acquaintance whose full fortunes only recently revealed themselves.

McKillop first conducted a basketball clinic in Northern Ireland in the late 1990s. He has since done three more. Additionally, McKillop has recruited two Irish players to Davidson through the years -- Michael Bree ('02) and Conor Grace ('05). While establishing a presence in Ireland, McKillop developed friendships with Deirdre Brennan, Ulster's head coach, and the program's director, Lilly Conor.

"When they asked me about candidates for their position, David Neal was the perfect fit," McKillop wrote in an e-mail. "They were looking for someone who was well coached, had college playing experience at a very high level, was serious about academics,and stood out because of his integrity, teamwork, and high basketball IQ."

Brennan and her husband traveled to Virginia to meet with Neal over the Fourth of July, and Neal signed on soon after.

Aside from the academic and athletic perks of the deal, Neal said he also is excited to experience the culture in Northern Ireland and to play some of the country's esteemed golf courses.

"In Belfast, there's a lot to do, but in Northern Ireland I hear it's more of a country atmosphere, so it'll be a little bit different," Neal said. "I've always wanted to travel, and hopefully this will be the beginning of my travels around the world."

By Steve Yanda  |  August 17, 2009; 1:07 PM ET
Categories:  Men's basketball  
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Cool story, Steve - thanks for that update on Dave Neal.

Posted by: Kev29 | August 17, 2009 1:32 PM | Report abuse

"I might as well go ahead and get my masters"

He's come a long way from the kid whose original SAT score did not meet the NCAA minimum. Dave Neal is like a living, breathing, Disney movie.

Posted by: Barno1 | August 17, 2009 4:34 PM | Report abuse

Great opportunity for a good guy. His future looks very exciting. Best of luck to him.

Posted by: erniegogo | August 17, 2009 5:20 PM | Report abuse

Wow Terrapin "Insider". Good job regurgitating the exact same story that Patrick Stevens wrote for the Washington Times last week. Do you just read other blogs and then call the same sources, ask the same questions, and then "report" the same story?

Posted by: mikeinrockville | August 18, 2009 2:30 PM | Report abuse

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