UM story isn't going to press

Full-court demons no more, Terps slow pace, raise efficiency

'99 St. John's loss was lesson

Press `just didn't work for us early,' Miller says

March 15, 2000|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

Was Maryland's style changed during this college basketball season, or at the end of the previous one?

In pushing Gary Williams for Atlantic Coast Conference Coach of the Year, one magazine claimed that the Terps' director concluded that he had to build a better mousetrap after the St. John's debacle in last year's NCAA tournament. When the Terps whipped North Carolina last month, a Tobacco Road columnist commented on the new offense Maryland had installed in the off-season.

Williams said baloney -- or words to that effect.

Maryland, No. 17 in the nation and the third seed in the Midwest Region, meets 14th-seeded Iona in an NCAA opener in Minneapolis tomorrow. The Terps' seventh straight appearance in the tournament does feature something new, as a de-emphasis on full-court defensive pressure has required a greater reliance on offensive efficiency in the half court.

Steve Francis was the most electrifying new talent in the land last season, and when he joined an accomplished core of veterans, a defensive philosophy several decades in the making came to fruition when Maryland set a slew of school records.

Full-court pressure -- 55 in coachspeak -- did not produce a bushel of easy baskets and wear down elite, athletic teams like Duke and St. John's, however. The Red Storm slashed through Maryland in the Sweet 16, when the Terps crumbled and went scoreless in the last eight minutes of the first half, leading to an ignominious exit in which the Terps trailed by as much as 26 points.

"People have got to stop judging last year's team on one game, when we were without our starting center," Williams said, referring to Obinna Ekezie, whose career was shortened by an Achilles' injury. "Let's be honest, people like this year's team more than last year's, but we averaged more points and shot a higher percentage last year.

"We are running the same plays we ran last year."

Yes, but not all of them. Maryland is actually using only a portion of its playbook.

"Gary told me that last season they ran 15 or 16 or 17 plays at different times of the year," said Maryland radio analyst Chris Knoche, who played for Williams at American University. "They started playing well this year when they got back to basics, running a core of just three or four plays, with the impetus on getting it inside.

"You get a lot of the flex look against a man defense. The zone stuff he runs is identical to what we ran at AU in the late '70s."

Like most conferences, the ACC is short on quality big men, and after Maryland slipped to 2-4 in the league, Williams issued a mandate to clear space for Lonny Baxter and give him the ball. The Terps went on a 9-1 tear in which their only loss was a narrow one at Temple, a cult favorite to win the NCAA tournament.

Maryland was still a work in progress in late January, and Williams agreed that it would have been harder to shift gears with a veteran at the point instead of freshman Steve Blake.

"It's easier to change things with a new guy, because he has to learn everything anyway," Williams said. "He has no preconceived ideas. He learns the way you want him to learn. We narrowed our offense down, but that was necessary because of our age. Hopefully, we will be able to add more next year.

"Our basic offense is the same. We have to make sure that Lonny and Juan [Dixon] get their number called more, just like we had to make sure that Steve Francis and Terence Morris got their numbers called more when they came in and became key starters last year."

While it took more than two months for Maryland to sharpen its focus offensively, it was apparent in November that this team could not lean on full-court defensive pressure as effectively as earlier editions of the Terps.

Blake is a more gifted athlete than Terrell Stokes, but his predecessor mastered a basic tenet of Williams' defensive style, forcing opponents other than the point guard to handle the ball.

Danny Miller is not as comfortable in the open court as Laron Profit, who followed 55 to become second at Maryland in career steals. Dixon is proud, but acknowledges that he can't do some of the things Francis could. Maryland became even quicker when Baxter replaced Ekezie, but Morris' defensive ability increases the closer he gets to the basket.

"Early in the season, we realized that we couldn't press as much as we did last year," Miller said. "We spent as much time in the preseason working on the press as we did my freshman year, but it just didn't work for us early. It worked out that we were more solid in our half-court defense. We get a lot of turnovers out of our half-court defense, and it evens out for us."

Maryland again led the ACC in steals with 336, but that's a big drop from the conference-record 402 it had last season. The Terps set a school record for blocked shots last season, 202, but this team has already bettered it, with 224.

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