While working my way backwards towards the start of the sports section, I came across Alan Hahn's "NBA Hotshots" section and saw a short article titled "Who the heck is Gary Neal?". Gary Neal is the shooting guard for San Antonio, who came to camp with the Spurs from Europe and made the Spurs team. He only scored 22 points in his most recent game. Now, in fairness to Hahn, the article does talk about Gary's career at Towson and briefly discusses why he transferred from LaSalle, but the article doesn't do his Tigers career or Neal proper justice.
As all of you fellow longtime CAA fans already know, Gary Neal was a scoring machine at his two years in Towson. I personally got to see several of Neal's games. There was the 36 point night at Hofstra in 2006 in a losing cause. Then there was the 31 point night at Hofstra in 2007 in another losing cause for the Tigers. There were the two years of CAA Tournament games in which the Tigers played three games, including the 2007 quarterfinal game vs. Old Dominion. The Tigers nearly knocked off the eventual NCAA at large bid Monarchs behind 22 points from Neal. But ODU's Gerald Lee broke a tie with less than four minutes left in the game and Old Dominion held on for the 58-55 win..
But the game I will remember Neal most of all was the end of the game I listened to on the radio on January 12, 2006. My friend Tieff and I had just got out of the Iona women's game in New Rochelle, which was a loss to Canisius. We got into our car and turned on 88.7 FM WRHU. And somehow, we managed to get the faint broadcast of Hofstra at Towson. I had written in my blog on January 11, 2006 that I thought this would be a trap game.
Unfortunately I was right. Hofstra trailed most of the game but we heard them make a rousing comeback, tying the game at 86 with 1:13 to play. But Neal scored several key points down the stretch, including twelve points in the last two minutes of the game as Towson upset Hofstra 94-91.
Yes, the Pride shot only 22 of 36 from the line, and yes they were missing Adrian Uter due to injury. But despite the Pride shooting 15 of 27 from beyond the arc, Neal was awesome. Neal was 9 of 18 from the field, including 6 of 8 from beyond the arc and was 10 of 13 from the line for 34 points on the night. Neal did get help that night from Lawrence Hamm, one of Tieff's favorites, who had 22 points. And if you look at the boxscore, guess who had a double-double with ten points and ten assists?. Yup, former CAA All Rookie in 2005-06 Tim Crossin.. Someone please explain to me how he lost so much playing time after his freshman year, which resulted in me starting the "Tim Crossin Burial Watch".
Hofstra only lost four regular season games in conference all season, all of which were on the road. The losses at UNC Wilmington, Northeastern and VCU were understandable because all those teams were over .500 in conference. However, Towson was under .500 in conference, and though Neal and Hamm made a nice duo, the Pride should not have lost that game.
I believe that loss to Towson cost them the #1 seed in the CAA Tournament. Had the Pride overcome Neal and Hamm, they would have finished 15-3 and would tied George Mason and UNC Wilmington for first place. Hofstra would have been the #1 seed based on tiebreaker of overall record vs. the other two teams (Wilmington had split with Hofstra and Mason, while Hofstra swept Mason). But alas, Wilmington and Mason tied, Wilmington got the #1 seed based on a better record vs. #3 Hofstra and the rest is history. Thus Neal will always be remembered by me for that January 12, 2006 game.
Of all the players in the CAA Tieff, Mal and I saw in the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons, we thought the most likely pro was Neal. In fact in the aforementioned 31 point night in 2007, I wrote in the next day article that "Gary Neal is a legitimate NBA player." I truly believed that. So when the NBA draft came and went in 2007 and Neal was not drafted, I was stunned.
Neal to me was the prototypical two guard. A legit 6 foot 4 inch guard who was muscular, could drive and more importantly, bury the three. Neal in 2005-06 averaged 26.1 points per game, shot 44.5 percent from the field and 40.5 percent from three (62 of 153). In 2006-07, he averaged 25.3 points per game, shooting 44.6 percent from the field, though his three point percentage dropped to 34 percent (93 of 278).
What probably hurt Neal's draft chances was that he didn't have too much defensive help from his Tigers' teammates. In those years, Towson was one of the worst defensive teams I ever saw (and they have been probably for even longer than that). In his two seasons at Towson, the Tigers were 12-16 and 15-17 respectively. Both years, the Tigers were 8-10 in conference.
Now the Newsday article glossed over Neal's college career. He was a top prospect for LaSalle and played there his first two seasons, averaging over 18 points a game for the Explorers. Then along with another player, Mike Cleaves, Neal was charged with rape of a University of New Haven women's basketball player during a camp at LaSalle. Neal sat out the 2004-05 season while the case was brought to trial. Both Neal and Cleaves were acquitted of the charge in November 2005 though the Dean of Students for LaSalle, Joseph Cicala noted ""the behavior discussed in the courtroom was reprehensible".
As a result, Neal left LaSalle, went back home to the Maryland area, and walked on the Towson campus. Yes, I just said Gary Neal was a walk-on in the 2005-06 season. The Towson board had to approve whether Neal could play for the Tigers in 2005-06. After the board's approval, Neal's first game was December 21, 2005 vs. VMI.
After his two seasons at Towson and after going undrafted, Neal had a nice career in Europe, which included playing last season for Benetton TV in the Italian A League and leading the league in scoring. Neal then was in camp with the Spurs and made the team. He is averaging nearly eighteen minutes a game, averaging eight points a game and is shooting 40.5 percent from beyond the arc.
Neal is the third CAA player from the 2005-06 season currently playing in the NBA. Jose Juan Barea was a senior for Northeastern that season. He was also undrafted, but made the Dallas Mavericks out of camp in 2006 and has been with them since that time. Barea is averaging nearly twenty minutes and seven points per game. Finally, Eric Maynor was a freshman for VCU in 2005-06. He of course was drafted in the first round of the 2009 draft by Utah. He was later traded to Oklahoma City where he averages nearly fifteeen minutes and five points per game.
So Mr. Hahn, before you ask "Who the Heck is Gary Neal?", check with some of your fellow college basketball staffers at Newsday. I would like to hope one of them remembers what Gary Neal did in the CAA and especially to Hofstra, since that's one of the teams they cover. And if not, you can always contact The College Hardwood. We'll gladly tell you all about "The Real Deal", Gary Neal.