COLLEGE PARK -- The task of the optimist is to turn lemons into lemonade. For the coming basketball season, Maryland coach Gary Williams is pledging to squeeze his squad of "lemons" into something that tastes better than the bitter brew ,, that is being forecast.
"We're picked last by most of the experts, as they say. But we were picked last last year [in the Atlantic Coast Conference] and we tied for fifth," said Williams.
"The one thing about sports is you do have the opportunity to have the final say, either you're good or you're bad, you win or you lose. I'm kind of anxious to get going."
Despite his anxiety to get things going, Williams will wait until the stroke of midnight tomorrow, five days after the rest of the country, as a part of a self-imposed penalty for watching a pickup game last year before the official Oct. 15 practice kickoff.
Williams' eagerness to get started in his second year as Maryland's coach might be more easily understood if his team looked even remotely similar to the one that finished 19-14 last season and reached the second round of the National Invitation Tournament. Only two regulars, seniors Tony Massenburg and Mike Anderson, were due to graduate, and a nucleus of young, scrappy players was still in tow.
But the Terps return just one starter, point guard Walt Williams, and three other players who saw more than 200 minutes of playing time. There are, of course, reasons:
* A two-year NCAA postseason ban.
* A one-year live television ban.
* Withdrawal from this year's ACC tournament.
* The transfers of Teyon McCoy and Curley Young, and the release from his scholarship of promising freshman swingman John Leahy, who went to Seton Hall.
* The hardship departure of Jerrod Mustaf to the New York Knicks.
* The academic redshirting of Jesse Martin.
But even here, maybe more by necessity than actual belief, Gary Williams finds comfort.
"The good thing this year for the players and the program is they're going to get a chance, they're going to get looked at," Williams said. "Some years, you went with your top eight solid. It's really hard for someone who's never played to come in and break that up.
"This year, we've got four or five guys who have played a lot and it's wide open, and you never play a season with five guys. I'd like to have nine or 10, but you need at least eight, so the battle's on for that."
Heading into the first practice the only thing that appears to be settled is the backcourt, where Williams, a 6-foot-8 junior who blossomed after he was moved to the point, will run the offense and senior Matt Roe, a sharpshooting transfer from Syracuse, will be counted on to provide most of the offense.
Roe and Williams will be backed up by sophomore Kevin McLinton, who played in just six games last season after suffering a stress fracture in his leg, and junior college transfer Matthew "Cougar" Downing, who averaged 16.5 points per game in two years as point guard at Dodge City (Kan.) Community College.
The frontcourt is less stable. Massenburg, who was a second-round pick of the San Antonio Spurs, and Mustaf took an average of nearly 37 points and 18 rebounds a game to the NBA.
"We have to get over the impact of losing those two players inside, because that was 40 points per game last year," Gary Williams said. "We return, at those two positions, maybe eight points per game. And so where do we get the scoring from? I don't know yet."
The first candidates to get a crack inside will be 6-9 senior Cedric Lewis, who led the team in blocks, and 6-8 sophomore Evers Burns, the Woodlawn grad who made some big plays. Between them, they averaged seven points and six rebounds as the frontcourt substitutes.
JUCO transfer Garfield Smith (6-7), who like Downing played in Kansas last season, and freshman Mark McGlone (6-7), who averaged 17 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks for Bladensburg High, are expected to spell Lewis and Burns.
The small forward spot is likely to go to 6-3 junior Vince Broadnax, a key defensive reserve last year, though Williams said the team will go with a three-guard set at times for quickness.
There will be six weeks for the team to jell before the season opener against Towson State, but with NCAA penalties and defections behind them, Williams thinks the team is already ahead of the game.