A weight removed

With less on mind and less on body, Towson's Neal lifting his game

December 22, 2006|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN REPORTER

Gary Neal's favorite basketball player is the sleek Ray Allen, but at one point last year he felt as immobile as Charles Barkley.

Neal is listed at 200 pounds, down from 210 last season, but those are media guide weights. After spending chunks of a 21-month break from the college game snacking and in seclusion, Neal ballooned to 227 in 2005. He proudly reported at 195 when Towson began practice two months ago.

"I wasn't sloppy fat, but I had no definition last year," Neal said. "The bulk wasn't a problem at the offensive end. It might have actually helped me post up smaller guys, but I'd get winded, and that would make it hard to play defense and rebound. There were times my man went backdoor, and I didn't box out. I'd rather be able to breathe down the stretch than post up."

Neal averaged a school-record 26.1 points last season. That would have ranked fourth in the nation, but he didn't play enough games to register among the NCAA leaders.

He led La Salle in scoring as a freshman and sophomore, but in the summer of 2004 was accused of rape and left Philadelphia under a cloud. Neal was acquitted in November 2005, and played his first game for Towson a year ago last night. He scored 14 points in the first five minutes of his Tigers debut, then ran out of gas, a quick start and gasping finish that was his junior season in microcosm.

Last February against Drexel, Neal suffered a stress fracture when another player stepped on his left foot. He played 40 minutes five nights later, but sat out the next four games. Towson's Pat Kennedy, who coached Sam Cassell at Florida State, describes Neal "as the purest scorer I've ever coached," but he returned with a mere 10 points in a season-ending loss at the Colonial Athletic Association quarterfinals.

Was the extra weight Neal carried a factor in that injury?

"It didn't help," said John Poitras, the Tigers' strength coach.

Poitras tested Neal for the first time last May, when his vertical leap was measured at 30.5 inches and he could squat 345 pounds five times. In early October, Neal's vertical had improved to 32 inches and he could do five squats with 390 pounds. Senior forward Dennard Abraham, who's 6-8 and 245, matched those reps. Since Towson opened its new weight room in 1999, no Tigers basketball player has squatted more.

Rounding into shape

Similar to the physical transformation J.J. Redick underwent after his sophomore season at Duke, Neal went from being a favorite of the pizza deliveryman to a workout machine.

"The guys lifted three to four times a week last summer, and ran three days a week," Poitras said. "There were a lot of days you could see Gary running on his own, on the track, up the steps at the stadium."

Neal, who led Aberdeen High to a state title as a sophomore in 2000 and was a second-team All-Metro selection at Calvert Hall, is a history major on target to get his degree next spring. An Army brat who spent the second and third grades in Germany, he can discuss war films as ably as basketball. His conversation was limited as he awaited trial, however, as Neal went into hiding at one stretch.

"I feel better, mentally, physically," Neal said. "I went through a situation that was life-altering, then dedicated myself to offseason work like I never had before. I feel like I've taken a couple of bricks off my back. The work I've done, that's something I can always hang my hat on. "

Neal would have been a marked man even if he hadn't been selected to the preseason All-CAA team. Now that his jersey hangs looser, opponents have something to grab as he runs the floor.

On Nov. 16, Neal matched the mark for points by a Tiger at the Towson Center with a career-high 41 in a 69-62 win over Samford. Little was forced. Samford coach Jimmy Tillette, who uses the Princeton style, said, "I don't think that we necessarily played terribly defensively."

That outburst came a day after Kansas had lost to Oral Roberts and three before the Tigers had to play the Jayhawks in Lawrence. Bill Self primed his players to stop Neal, who proceeded to go 4-for-38 from three-point range in a four-game stretch that took the Tigers through three time zones.

Fatigue, Kansas and a bruise on his shooting hand contributed to that tailspin, but Neal is also adjusting to his new body. Last season, less than half of his shots were from three-point range. Thus far, 56.3 percent of his attempts have come from beyond the arc.

Leading the way

Neal is averaging 22.2 points, tops in the CAA and eighth in the nation. No teammate is scoring in double digits.

Double teams and other help are cutting off Neal, but there have been stretches when he resembles a 4-year-old on a sugar high, as he has pressed, rushing shots he doesn't have to.

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