Williams' fire has forged Neal

March 19, 2009|By RICK MAESE | RICK MAESE,rick.maese@baltsun.com

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -The day before the Maryland men's basketball team began NCAA tournament play, it held a public practice at Sprint Center. With a couple of hundred fans looking on, the atmosphere was loose and informal, and coach Gary Williams spent most of his time chatting with acquaintances.

This would never be mistaken for a real practice, evidenced particularly well when Williams called over his lone senior, Dave Neal, and the two exchanged a few friendly words and shared a laugh.

At a real practice when the doors are closed to fans and media, Neal is a giant dartboard for Williams' well-honed brand of colorful, red-faced, vein-popping, R-rated coaching. He's the guy Williams rides the hardest, the one who, deserving or not, often feels the brunt of the coach's verbal assault. Every day, it's the same thing, as if Neal just stole Williams' parking spot or something.

And how does he handle it?

"It's always a great thing when Coach Williams yells at you," Neal says.

And it's a greater thing for the Terps that Neal can take it. In fact, he has responded to it better than most. No one could've imagined thinking this just a couple of years ago, but there's no way the Terps would be in the NCAA tournament without Dave Neal. Both on and off the court, he has been essential to the Terps' jelling, to the Terps' believing and to the Terps' winning.

That's odd to say about a guy who could walk onto a D.C. playground and might get picked last, a guy who at times seems about as athletic as a tree trunk, a guy who, as one person described him, "looks like half the guys on my slow-pitch softball team."

It's probably no mistake Neal's growth and ascension mirror that of the Terps. As improbable as Maryland's NCAA presence might seem, no one could've guessed Neal would have ever played such a prominent role. In fact, when he was inserted into the starting lineup early in the season, fans used that as Exhibit A when lamenting the downfall of the program. Even as students embraced Neal and his gritty style, many fans incredulously looked at Neal and collectively groused, "This is really our starting forward?"

They're still saying that, but using an exclamation point now, not a question mark.

Even Neal concedes that he never anticipated playing such a prominent role. He grew up in love with Maryland basketball. Just earning a spot on the roster was a dream fulfilled. He was willing to be a practice player, to play garbage minutes, to do whatever was asked.

When Neal first arrived on campus, he struggled with Williams' style. He felt he was being picked on. It took a bit of time, but he started to realize Williams stayed on his case because he knew Neal could get better.

"One thing I've learned over the years, when Coach is hard on you, that's a good sign," Neal says.

Neal says the trick is to block out the mean stuff and focus on what Williams is asking of him. In turn, Williams knows he can use Neal to get a message across to the entire team.

"Dave knows me pretty well, and he's willing to take some heat at practice for the benefit of the team," Williams says. "In other words, I can get on Dave and it doesn't really bother Dave. He's ready to go, and it gets the other guys' attention."

It's difficult to quantify the way Neal has held the team together. As one of the captains, he says there have been a couple of occasions the team has required players-only meetings. As the world was caving in around the program, it was Neal - using his large frame as a shield of sorts - making sure criticisms and distractions didn't affect the players.

Williams won't soon apologize for yelling or making practice uncomfortable for Neal, but he can see every week that Neal is closer to reaching his potential.

"I really think this is more the true Dave Neal than our fans have got to see in his first three years, because he wasn't really in the kind of basketball shape that you need to be," says Williams, noting that injuries have slowed Neal's progress. "Now, he's showing just how good he can be."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.