COLLEGE PARK -- There were times during preseason practice when it didn't look as if Chris Kerwin would make it to Maryland's first game. And there were times at the beginning of the regular season when it didn't look as if Kerwin would last until the end.
But here it is, less than two weeks before the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, and the 6-foot-10, 220-pound junior center is holding up. A little worse for wear, his forehead still a bit swollen and bruised from Tuesday night's collision with teammate Walt Williams.
"I think this year has really helped me a lot," Kerwin said before practice Thursday. "I'm going to have to do a lot of work over the summer, but now I've had a taste of what it's like to play on this level."
Today, Kerwin should get a full meal when Maryland (11-13, 3-10) meets 10th-ranked North Carolina (18-6, 8-5) in a 1 p.m. game at Cole Field House. After literally banging heads with Williams, Kerwin will figuratively do the same against 7-footers Eric Montross and Kevin Salvadori.
Kerwin's first meeting with North Carolina last month wasn't a palatable experience. Starting for the first time since his transfer from Old Dominion, Kerwin seemed a bit overwhelmed by the surroundings, producing only three points and four rebounds in 27 minutes of a 96-76 defeat.
"As a team, we didn't play as well as we have lately," said Kerwin, who remained in the starting lineup after senior forward Garfield Smith broke his leg in mid-January. "And I didn't perform anywhere near what I'm capable of."
On occasion, Kerwin has proved capable of scoring and rebounding in double figures, though not yet on the same night: He had 11 points and eight rebounds in games against Florida State and North Carolina State; he had 13 rebounds and five points against Wake Forest. He has blocked 21 shots.
Like a lot of players Gary Williams has recruited and taken into the program since Maryland went on probation, the coach wasn't sure what he was getting with Kerwin, who had played behind Chris Gatling -- a two-time Sun Belt Player of the Year and future NBA first-round draft pick -- for two years at ODU.
But Williams knew Kerwin had one unteachable trait: height.
"I knew he had a chance to play here, but he had to work hard, and he has," said Williams. "We've always asked a lot out of Chris, but he's improved as the season's gone on. It's been a dramatic change."
From a player who seemed timid and weak in preseason practice to one who confidently strode on the court one night against Duke and told Evers Burns, "I got [Christian] Laettner." From a player who seemed to fall down with the slightest brush to one who leads the team in charges taken.
"At least I lead the team in something," said Kerwin, who is averaging 4.3 points and 4.9 rebounds. "But I have more opportunities than anybody else because I'm the guy at the back of the press."
Kerwin might also lead the Terps in black-and-blue marks, which come from constantly banging into people, mostly -- but not always -- on the opposing team. After his collision with Williams, which came when both players dived for a loose ball, a knot developed immediately.
"I thought I was holding a basketball, but it was my head," said Kerwin.
Kerwin, the youngest of seven children, mostly competitive swimmers, also has the distinction of having the same name as the university president. Though William E. Kirwan obviously is no relation, Kerwin says he has fooled a few of his classmates.
"They'll ask me, and I'll tell them I just saw Dad," said Kerwin. "But I've really liked it here. The team is like a family."
The opportunities, and challenges, will continue to come Kerwin's way. It is likely that he will start at center for the Terps next season, and might follow the lead of his predecessor, Cedric Lewis, whose responsibilities and contribution increased greatly from his junior to senior years.
"I'd like to be more productive to the team's offense," said Kerwin, who went to high school in Milwaukee and West Palm Beach, Fla.
Kerwin has proved to have a better-than-adequate touch around the basket (shooting nearly 53 percent), but his free-throw shooting needs some improvement (14 of 31). Considering how Lewis improved under Williams, Kerwin isn't that far behind.
"He should have the confidence now," said Williams. "There should be some motivation. Any time you're 6-10 or better, there are opportunities to play beyond college, whether it's Europe or wherever. If he can pick it up a little bit, he can use basketball once he gets out of college."
-! That's what you call dessert.