Young Terps turn to Blake for assistance

November 18, 1999|By Ken Rosenthal

COLLEGE PARK -- Richard Blake drove 19 hours from Miami Lakes, Fla., to watch his son's first game at Maryland.

When does he plan to return home?

"After we win the championship in New York," Blake proclaimed last night at halftime of Maryland's 71-61 victory over San Francisco in the Preseason National Invitation Tournament.

Elvis has left the building, along with two members of his band. Steve Francis, Laron Profit and Obinna Ekezie are playing bigger halls, and Richard Blake's son, Steve, is now playing Cole Field House.

Welcome to the post-Francis era at Maryland, an era that will be played at a lower decibel level, with half-court refrains replacing open-court jams.

Blake, the first freshman to open a season at point guard since coach Gary Williams arrived at Maryland, got off to a rocky start last night, making only one shot -- a three-pointer -- and finishing with as many turnovers as assists (six).

Still, Richard Blake could not contain his excitement.

"It's hard to describe," he said. "Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine my son playing in the ACC. My wife is so nervous, she's calling me on the cell phone every five minutes."

Cindy Blake can relax -- her son and Maryland advanced to a second-round game against Tulane tomorrow night, secured Williams' 400th career victory and extended the Terps' streak of nonconference home victories to 65, the longest in the nation.

San Francisco, one of the biggest teams Maryland will face this season, did not go easily, pulling within 54-52 with 9: 30 left. But two of Maryland's elder statesmen -- sophomores Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter -- made sure the Terps survived.

Dixon finished with a game-high 20 points, seven rebounds, three assists and three steals. Baxter finished with 18 points, nine rebounds and five blocked shots. Terence Morris might be a first-team preseason All-American, but he was Maryland's third-best player last night.

This is Williams' kind of team, one with expectations so low, it failed to even crack Sports Illustrated's Top 25. Francis' team could not celebrate a trip to the Sweet 16. Neither could Joe Smith's team his sophomore season. This team would be delighted to get that far.

Of the eight players in Williams' rotation last night, three were freshmen, three were sophomores and two were juniors. This is a young team, a developing team. The Terps feature several interesting parts, but no real identity, not at this early stage.

Williams actually had Blake and fellow freshmen Drew Nicholas and Tahj Holden in the game together in the first half last night. It was the first time he had played three freshmen so early in a game since 1993, when the Exree Hipp-Johnny Rhodes-Duane Simpkins class entered Maryland.

"You have to play the three freshmen," Williams said. "You have to make them understand early that they have to play this year. You can't wait for the ideal situation. You have to throw them in there just like it's a normal game. I want them to develop that feeling -- they're there with each other. They can stick up for each other."

Blake was sluggish in his debut night, rarely beating his man off the dribble, taking only three shots. Williams, however, was encouraged that he got the ball inside after San Francisco cut Maryland's lead to two, finding Baxter and Morris.

"I just didn't get into the flow," said Blake, who injured his left foot in the second half, but is expected to practice today and play tomorrow night. "I realize I'm not going to play great every night. I just have to come out the next time and pick it up."

Williams seems not at all worried -- he knows that Blake might be more prepared to play the point at this level than any other freshman he has had at Maryland.

Blake led Oak Hill (Va.) Academy to a 31-0 record last season, and Miami (Fla.) Senior High to a 36-1 mark the year before. He has lived away from home. He has played in big-time programs. He has traveled to tournaments and games.

Could he be Williams' first great point guard at Maryland? Walt Williams was out of position at the point. Kevin McLinton lacked point-guard skills. Duane Simpkins wasn't quick enough to overcome his lack of size. Terrell Stokes led the Terps to back-to-back Sweet 16s, but couldn't beat his man off the dribble or break down a defense.

Now there is Blake.

"He's really good at getting the ball from one end of the court to the other -- in other words, from foul line to foul line," Williams said. "He's very quick. That really helps your running game, when you have someone like that in there.

"He's more of a pure point guard who can score a little bit. Steve Francis, if you call him a point guard, was a scorer who could play decent at getting the ball into the offense. Blake is the other way. He's a pure point guard who can make the open shot. You can't sag off him. He's not afraid to shoot it."

He will only get better. The Terps will only get better.

Could be a fun season.

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