COLLEGE PARK -- The air surrounding the University of Maryland basketball program is no longer turbulent. The dark clouds that have taken up residence above Cole Field House the past few years are showing signs of breaking up.
Preseason practice is scheduled to begin at 12:01 a.m. tomorrow, but Midnight Madness is merely a name for an event, rather than some personal message for a program that, until recently, was in constant upheaval.
Gary Williams senses a different feeling going into his third season as head coach than he did before his first two.
"Things are settled even more here," Williams said last week, as his team gathered for a not-so-serious picture-taking session. "I think we're more confident. We know that if we do what we're supposed to, good things are going to happen."
The Terrapins are again not eligible for postseason competition, as part of their NCAA probation, but they will be back on live television and are eligible for the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in March. There is a glint of light finally coming from the end of this long tunnel.
Unlike last season, when Maryland returned only one starter, point guard Walt Williams, the Terps have five of their top seven players back from a 16-12 team that was one of the ACC's biggest surprises. The starting backcourt of Williams and junior Kevin McLinton remains intact, with senior forwards Vince Broadnax and Garfield Smith also returning.
"I think we have much more depth this year," Gary Williams said. "The good thing is that there'll be competition for who gets playing time."
The biggest battle will be at center, where juniors Evers Burns (Woodlawn) and Chris Kerwin, a transfer from Old Dominion, will look to replace Cedric Lewis. It will not be an easy task, since Lewis blossomed as a senior by becoming an adequate scorer and breaking his brother Derrick's single-season Maryland shot-blocking record.
The loss of Lewis and Matt Roe could be overcome by thquantity of bodies. After Walt Williams broke his leg in January, an injury that forced him to miss six weeks of the season, the Terps were down to Burns, as well as guards Cougar Downing and walk-on Mike Thibeault (Glen Burnie), off the bench.
With the addition of four freshmen, Maryland will have a femore options. How much freshman forwards Geno Soto and Kurtis Shultz (McDonogh and DeMatha) along with freshman guards Wayne Bristol and Charles Range, get to play depends on how fast they can adapt to Gary Williams' system.
Not that the Terps are without deficiencies. The most glaring one is height. Aside from Kerwin, whose 212 pounds stretches over his 6-foot-10 body, Maryland doesn't have a player taller than 6-8.
"We definitely don't have size overall, but we do have size in some places," said Walt Williams, who at 6-8 and a suddenly muscular 220 pounds joins McLinton, 6-3 and 208, for one of the biggest backcourts in the country. "Cedric took up a lot of space."
Williams, now a senior, undeniably will be the leader of this team. The player teammates call "The Wizard" (actually they just call him "Wiz") may be the best point guard in the league, having beaten out Duke's Bobby Hurley for a spot on this year's U.S. Pan Am team.
But he will not have to singlehandedly carry the Terps through the season. While Williams was sidelined last season, McLinton proved more than capable of filling in at the point. Broadnax, a former walk-on who has become almost a folk hero around Maryland, added some offense to his defensive game. Smith, a former junior college player, became more consistent as the season went on. And Burns has shown some flashes, even though his shot selection and defense need to improve.
"I don't think we have to prove anything," Walt Williams said. "Last year, a lot of guys got experience, and I think that's going to help."
What's also going to help the Terps is the calm atmosphere that pervades Cole Field House these days. Aside from the NCAA sanctions, Maryland started preseason practice five days late last year, the result of a penalty imposed by athletic director Andy Geiger because coaches had watched unofficial workouts too early before Williams' first season.
Maryland hopes to improve on last year's record and match the (( emotion that accompanied it. With a regular-season schedule that begins Nov. 23 against Mount St. Mary's, the Terps have six weeks to put the pieces together. It is certainly not as big a puzzle as it was a year ago.
"It's going to be fun," McLinton said. "We're going to be ready."