Top dogs, new tricks

Williams: Maryland coach's ability to adapt has enabled his team to bench-press its past March misery.

Ncaa Tournament

The Final Four

March 27, 2001|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - He has been at it for 23 years, and the coach is still learning.

And the willingness to adapt, whether it's figuring out the nuances of the deepest bench he has ever had or finding the right words to get his team through its most trying times, is a big reason why Gary Williams is taking the Maryland Terrapins to their first Final Four in school history.

Before this season, Williams had never been blessed with such a talent base. He had never had so many quality backups. The typical Williams team during his first decade at Maryland consisted of one or two main contributors off the bench, and their purpose was to keep starters fresh enough to play at a breakneck pace.

Check out these 25-10 Terps, who are taking a 10-1 streak into Saturday's national semifinal against Atlantic Coast Conference archrival Duke with the freshest legs Maryland has ever had in March under Williams.

Check out these Terps, who, unlike the typical Maryland team that was tired by early March, are playing their best basketball of the year at the perfect time.

Maryland is going to Minneapolis because it has one of the nation's guttiest players in junior guard Juan Dixon and a confident, burly post man in Lonny Baxter and a floor leader in Steve Blake who sees the court as well as any point guard.

But the Terps are a study in bodies. Lots of them. Just ask Stanford, who wore down steadily in the face of the Terps' many parts during Maryland's decisive 87-73 victory in Saturday's West Regional championship game.

Just ask Danny Miller, one of the heroes who has made his limited time count. Miller, who lost his starting job to Byron Mouton in early December, relieved Mouton after he picked up two quick fouls while guarding Stanford All-America guard Casey Jacobsen. Miller essentially took Jacobsen out of the action, while collecting two steals and three assists.

"As a coach, I think [Williams] has learned a lot about this team. There's been a lot of learning experiences for everybody," Miller said. "I knew I was going to get playing time. I knew I had to work hard to get it. He goes for what's working."

What works for Williams this year is a departure from previous formulas. To watch a typical Williams team is to watch a team built around full-court pressure defense and forcing turnovers to create easy baskets.

Not anymore. The Terps, despite having a 10-man rotation - the deepest ever in the Williams era - primarily have become a half-court team that would prefer to run, but is equally comfortable grinding along in a slower tempo that produces jump shots or Baxter layups. Maryland is content to sit back in a half-court defense, mostly man-to-man but also some occasional zone, a former Williams taboo.

Williams actually started leaning that way a year ago. This year's roster makeup dictated a more pronounced change in philosophy.

"With our size this year, the biggest thing I had to get away from was always wanting to press. This year, we've got more depth than ever but we've probably pressed less than ever," Williams said. "Now that we're in the Final Four, I think maybe I was wrong all those years.

"I've never been big on trying to maximize our bench. I always worried about having enough guys fresh enough to press. I had to take a long look at our bench and know that they were good enough to play. You have to get a feel for your players, exactly how you can use them."

Using big arsenal

Williams has figured out how to use all of the toys at his disposal, starting with an imposing front line. Once an opponent gets past Baxter or forward Terence Morris, they must contend with the likes of 6-foot-10 backup Tahj Holden or 7-0 senior center Mike Mardesich.

Holden, who missed nine games with a broken foot earlier this season, scored 24 points in regional victories over Georgetown and Stanford and gave the Cardinal headaches inside with his defense and outside with his shooting. Mardesich, a defensive presence who guards the paint with a nasty streak, scored five points in eight critical minutes against Georgetown.

Holden averages 11.9 minutes, Mardesich 10.2. And then there is 6-10 freshman Chris Wilcox, a star in the making who is the team's best pure athlete and is averaging 3.5 points in only 8.7 minutes of playing time.

"I think [Williams] has done a good job of keeping our heads in the game and of finding the right combination if somebody is not playing well," Holden said.

"Everybody knows what kind of minutes they're going to get. It's almost down to a science," said backup point guard Drew Nicholas, who plays either guard position, averages 16.7 minutes, and made huge plays late in the first half of each victory at the West Regional.

"I can almost pinpoint a minute when I know I'm going to check into a game. Everyone knows their roles. We're all comfortable with that. It took some time for [Williams] to find his rhythm with this team."

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