Terps hope to begin as well as they ended

Baxter: `I can't wait for first ... practice'

College Basketball

October 09, 2001|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - In the eyes of Maryland Terrapins senior center Lonny Baxter, the path promises to be challenging, yet the task is simple.

The time for feeling good about the men's basketball team's first Final Four trip in school history has passed. The time for putting every ounce of energy into winning Maryland's first national championship has begun.

And there is no room for a bad stumble or a traumatic emotional swing. That bumpy path defined the Terps last season, beginning with a 1-3 start and continuing with a midseason 1-5 slide that threatened to knock Maryland out of the NCAA tournament for the first time in eight years.

"The biggest challenge is to win it all. The biggest challenge is ourselves, and how badly we want it," said Baxter, who will combine with senior shooting guard and fellow preseason All-American Juan Dixon to form Maryland's backbone.

"We know we have the potential. We know we have the right players. Basically, the same team is back. We have to start the season the way we ended it last year. If we start it like we finished it, we'll pretty much be unstoppable. I can't wait for the first day of practice."

Neither can coach Gary Williams, who officially gets his 13th year in College Park - and Maryland's last season at Cole Field House - rolling with the annual Midnight Madness event at 12:01 a.m. on Saturday.

There is no time to waste. Four weeks from Thursday, the Terps open on the earliest date in school history by facing Arizona in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic at Madison Square Garden in New York. The winner plays the Florida-Temple winner on Nov. 9, with the losers playing in the consolation round the same night.

Williams loves the sense of urgency that the schedule forces as much as he likes this team's chances to win an Atlantic Coast Conference title and advance beyond the national semifinals, where Maryland lost to Duke in Minneapolis on March 31.

Ten players, including four starters, return from the 25-11 squad that regained its footing with a flourish, winning 10 of its final 12 games. Both losses came against Duke, the popular preseason pick to win another title.

The Terps have been tabbed by several publications as a top three team. As for another fall marked by high expectations, Williams seems bored by the question. After all, Maryland has won 120 games since 1997, the most prolific five-year stretch in the program's history. The Terps have been to five Sweet 16 rounds in the past eight years.

"I think it's a natural progression for our program to be picked high in the preseason," Williams said. "All Maryland people should stop asking that question [about dealing with high expectations]. That question has to stop, if we want to be a consistent program."

What remains to be seen is whether the Terps can add firepower after subtracting it, and whether they can wear down opponents with tremendous depth again.

Gone are key components from the frontcourt, which was the deepest in the nation a year. Power forward Terence Morris now plays for the Houston Rockets. Small forward Danny Miller, unhappy with his playing time, transferred to Notre Dame, leaving the starting job to senior Byron Mouton, who replaced Miller last December. Backups Mike Mardesich and LaRon Cephas have left.

"With Terence, we lost a very good rebounder who gave us 25 minutes a game. Danny was an exceptional defender who gave us 19 minutes. Mike was a physical presence who gave us 10," Williams said. "We've got some things to work on."

The offense, one of the game's most explosive a year ago, will flow through Baxter in the low post and Dixon up high again, with point guard Steve Blake back as a third-year starter and looking to improve on his 6.9-point scoring average.

Baxter erased some regular-season problems with a furious finish. He won the MVP of the West Regional by dominating the big men from Georgetown and Stanford. Dixon (team-high 18.2 points) was one of the toughest defenders in the ACC who kept finding ways to score, be it off turnovers, by getting to the foul line or burning teams with medium- and long-range jumpers.

"Great players know they can't stay the same. They have to get better. I think Juan is a better ball handler now," Williams said. "And he really wants to prove that he's still a winner."

Backup Drew Nicholas returns with experience at both guard positions, and freshman point guard Andre Collins should add to the depth with his quickness.

The biggest question marks loom among the bigger guys. With Miller gone, will Mouton avoid foul trouble and be more consistent with more minutes coming his way? And at power forward, will Tahj Holden and Chris Wilcox create a powerhouse position? Holden is a physical presence with a deft shooting touch. Wilcox, maybe the best pure athlete on the team, who has bulked up to 230 pounds, could be the breakout player in the ACC.

Newcomer Ryan Randle could push his way into the rotation. With Miller gone, freshman Mike Grinnon figures to see notable playing time behind Mouton.

Williams will never forget the Terps hitting rock bottom in February by losing at home to last-place Florida State. That dropped Maryland to 15-9. The Terps then rebounded all the way to Minneapolis.

"We want to remember the feeling of going to the Final Four. We want to remember the feeling of losing five out of six, that sinking feeling that our season was sliding away," Williams said. "Both of those things should be motivators."

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