COLLEGE PARK - Juan Dixon awakened with his head spinning, his stomach churning, his body drenched in sweat.
The latest dose of the winter flu was making its rounds, and Dixon knew he had been hit at the worst time. About 15 hours remained before his team would face North Carolina.
Missing the game was never an option. So Dixon, with the aid of a four-hour, IV treatment, gathered his weakened self for the Tar Heels. And Dixon was not himself during Maryland's ensuing, 86-83 loss.
From the outset, he breathed heavily and sweated profusely while laboring to get up and down the court. His weary legs made his defense look ordinary and left him without a steal for the only time this season. He missed medium-range jumpers he normally converts automatically. Still, he had enough left in his depleted tank to lead the Terps with 22 points.
Dixon, Maryland's superb junior shooting guard, will not be designated as a team captain until his final season.
Yet, is there any doubt about which player on Maryland's deep, talented roster brings the most fire to the floor, night after night? Is there any doubt that the nation's eighth-ranked team is riding largely on the bony shoulders of the Calvert Hall kid many thought would be too light to excel in the Atlantic Coast Conference?
"I'm not one of the captains, but through my play and my hard work, guys tend to listen to me a little bit more now," said Dixon, who stands 6 feet 3 and recently weighed in at 161 pounds. "A lot of guys respect where I came from and where I am. I'm vocal, but not to the point where I have the right to get into somebody. I like to lead by example."
If Maryland follows Dixon's example in March, maybe the Terps can push their way into the Final Four for the first time in school history. They most likely will need another great game from him to unseat visiting, second-ranked Duke tomorrow night at Cole Field House.
Getting it done
Dixon's approach is simple. Go all-out, all the time, while doing it all. He has one of the game's deadlier shots, two of its quicker hands and one of its bigger hearts. He is the skinniest nightmare in the ACC."[Dixon] seems to have endless energy. He plays hard at both ends of the court," added Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who watched him score 31 points nearly a year ago to lead the Terps to a 98-87 victory in Durham, ending Duke's 46-game, home winning streak. "He's a very tough matchup. Today, he's one of the best players in the country."
In some ways, Dixon's collegiate career, which began with a redshirt season and continued with a one-year apprenticeship under future NBA lottery pick Steve Francis two seasons ago, came of age on that magical night last Feb. 9 at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
"I go back to that game a lot. My brother [Phil, a former Division III All-American at Shenandoah College] thinks it's the best game of my college career," Dixon said. "I was in the attack mode in that game, aggressive the whole game. If I could do that against Duke, it gave me so much confidence to do it against anybody."
And he has. That night at Duke propelled Dixon to first-team, all-ACC status and made him a preseason All-America choice this year. He has done nothing to disappoint the prognosticators. Only a case of the flu and a bruised tailbone, which knocked him out of Sunday's 75-61 victory at North Carolina State after 11 minutes, have slowed him.
Eighteen games into the season, Dixon - who should be at full strength against Duke - leads the Terps in scoring (18.4 ppg) and leads the ACC with 2.9 steals per game. He is the league's premier free-throw shooter, having converted 33 straight attempts, 53 of his last 54 and 89.7 percent overall.
He also has overcome an early-season shooting slump with numbing consistency. Since missing his first nine three-point attempts during the Terps' 1-3 start, Dixon has made 30 of his past 61.
Dixon, who has added impressive upper-body muscle to his lean frame and sports almost no body fat, does it differently than the typical guard.
While he can kill opponents shooting from the perimeter, he loves going to the free-throw line. In turn, he has no fear of driving into the lane and drawing contact against much bulkier opponents. It helps to have one of the sweetest intermediate, pull-up shots in the game.
And as quick as Dixon is off the dribble, he is just as fleet when anticipating a pass, picking it off and starting a fast break. Whether he is bouncing off screens to deny passes to his opponent or curling around the big boys at the offensive end and catching a pass in a squared-up shooting position, it would be tough to find a player who works more relentlessly without the ball.
"You see some things on tape that you don't always have time to appreciate during the game," said Maryland coach Gary Williams, who compared Dixon's ability to generate steals to that of Johnny Rhodes, the former Terps star who holds the ACC career steals record.
Dixon was more of a spot-up shooter at Calvert Hall, where he was a guard-forward on a team of small backcourt players. His thin build was a primary reason that elite schools weren't lining up with serious scholarship offers.
Dixon visited Providence, and listened to pitches from Clemson and Virginia. After visiting College Park, he knew that was the place for him. Williams already had fallen in love with Dixon's ferocity on the court."[Dixon] was playing in an AAU game in Georgia in the summer [of 1997]. His team was down 20 with about five minutes left and it was about a hundred degrees in the gym," Williams recalled. "He was probably still the only guy on his team working hard defensively. I knew he was a great competitor.
"The only doubt I had about Juan was the same everyone else had. He certainly was quick enough to play and score in the ACC, but would he be strong enough?"