Trim Dixon keeps Maryland quite fit

College basketball: A slim presence on the court at 152 pounds, Juan Dixon has boosted the Terps' stock in the past 10 games, turning heads about who in fact is the ACC's top player.

February 19, 2000|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- There is a maxim about marathoners. At the starting line, locate the frailest, most emaciated individual. That's your winner.

Basketball isn't supposed to provide a parallel, but thin is in for No. 22 Maryland, which has drawn strength from the lean frame of Juan Dixon in the past five weeks. As his production has increased, so has the stock of the Terps, who will try to make it eight wins in their past nine Atlantic Coast Conference games this afternoon at Wake Forest.

Dixon, a sophomore who attended Calvert Hall, has averaged 23.3 points in Maryland's past 10 games to become the ACC's top scorer in conference games.

He has propelled himself into the ACC Player of the Year debate, which centered around teammate Terence Morris in November and Duke's Chris Carrawell last month. Morris was a preseason All-American. Carrawell was one of two returning starters on a team that reached the NCAA tournament final in March.

Dixon? He began the campaign as a question mark.

How would a 6-foot-3, 152-pound guard -- Dixon says he has weighed as much as 156, by the way -- who had never started a college game hold up under the rigors of one of the nation's toughest schedules? How would a player with a somewhat suspect handle on the ball ever begin to replace Steve Francis, the most-hyped, most-Plays-of-the-Day talent in the land?

Quite nicely, thank you.

Dixon leads the Terps in seven categories, from scoring (18.6) to steals (3.0), and it is easy to quantify his feistiness. On a team that has no scholarship seniors and a front line of Morris and Lonny Baxter that should excel at charades -- they don't say much -- it is a quality that is recognized by the coach.

"He [Dixon] gets out of whack sometimes, in terms of trying so hard to win," Gary Williams said. "If you're going to have a problem, that's a good problem to have. You can never take away his heart. His personality is as important as his scoring to us. We've got some guys who are pretty laid back. Juan seems to get them to play hard, along with himself."

Time to play

Like Francis, Dixon has a fearless nature and a hard shell, surely byproducts of the family losses they have suffered.

Francis tired of talking about the death of his mother, who succumbed to cancer while he was a wayward high school student. Dixon lost both of his parents to drug abuse and AIDS while he was at Calvert Hall. While Francis' fame preceded his game, there wasn't that much to say about Dixon's, whose upbringing was the focus of an ESPN profile on Christmas Eve.

On Thanksgiving eve, in the first major test of Dixon's life as a college starter, he shot 3-for-17 against Kentucky in the nationally televised semifinals of the Preseason National Invitation Tournament. A shooting guard, he missed 21 straight three-pointers, starting with a dispiriting loss to George Washington to an infuriating one against Duke.

Maryland's next game was at Georgia Tech, and while the Terps lost and fell to 0-3 in the ACC, Dixon's play said that he was not about to be treated like a doormat. That began a 10-game roll, during which Dixon has made 50.2 percent of his field-goal attempts and 50 percent of his three-pointers.

Two images linger from Wednesday's romp over Georgia Tech, when Dixon torched the Yellow Jackets with career highs of 33 points and seven assists.

He made an errant lob pass, but Maryland retained possession and his three-pointer beat the shot clock. As he trotted to the other end, Dixon raised his palms and shrugged at Morris, as if to say, "I can't help myself." When the Terps didn't run their press offense on their next possession, the smirk was replaced with a scowl.

Pushing the team

Dixon's whatever-it-takes approach was most evident in the worst shooting game he's had during his midseason surge. He was 5-for-15 against N.C. State on Feb. 6, but willed Maryland to a comeback victory with some late steals on cramped-up legs. That effort indicated his resolve, which rubs off on his teammates.

"He's the energetic guy on the team," Morris said. "A lot of times we feed off of Juan and how he's playing, how emotionally he's into the game. He's done that for pretty much most of the season. We're just riding him as far as he can go."

It's clear Dixon is motivated to win and make a name for himself, but where did he gain the confidence that allowed him to keep looking for his shot after the woes he experienced in December?

Some Maryland fans were upset when Williams took an early commitment from Dixon in 1996, instead of getting Albert Mouring, a standout for Colonel Richardson on the Eastern Shore. Both were late getting their qualifying test scores, and while Mouring joined Connecticut for the second half of the 1997-98 season, Dixon had to content himself with Terp practices.

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