Terps open with tough act to follow

No. 2 UM tips off tonight vs. Arizona in New York City

Florida or Temple up next

Williams is `anxious to play' coming off 2001 Final Four run

November 08, 2001|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - Seven months after extending their season to its latest date in school history, the Maryland Terrapins will begin again, this time at their earliest starting point ever.

Tonight at Madison Square Garden, not quite four weeks after their first practice, the No. 2 Terps bring their loftiest preseason billing and a squad intent on reclaiming a place at the Final Four into the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic tournament, where Maryland will tip off its 2001-2002 season against unranked Arizona.

"This is the shortest period of time I've ever had to get ready for a season. I'm anxious to play," said Maryland coach Gary Williams, who begins his 13th year in College Park after guiding the Terps to their first Final Four last spring.

Led by seniors and preseason All-America candidates Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter, Maryland will roll out a team not as big or deep as last year's edition on paper, but still one with plenty of weapons and versatility. Four starters and nine letter winners, including seven of the Terps' nine top scorers from a year ago, are back.

"I think we can be better," said Dixon, looking back at last year's 25-11 team that won 10 of its last 12 games, after a nearly disastrous 1-5 midseason stretch. "We went through tough times that made us stronger last year. We want to start off strong this year and stay hungry."

Maryland's first test is an intriguing one. Few teams have been as successful as Arizona under 18-year coach Lute Olson. During the Olson era, the Wildcats have been to 17 straight NCAA tournaments, won nine Pacific-10 Conference titles, played in four Final Fours, won a national championship in 1997 and lost the NCAA title game to Duke last April 2.

And few programs have gone through such a drastic, one-year makeover as Arizona, which nearly lost its entire starting lineup on NBA draft day in June. Three of those starters - Gilbert Arenas, Richard Jefferson and Michael Wright - left school early for the pros and joined senior center Loren Woods.

Point guard Jason Gardner had designs on the NBA, but Gardner changed his mind after receiving unfavorable reviews at the league's pre-draft camp.

Gardner now is the grizzled veteran on a team that looks vulnerable with its youth. The Wildcats will start two freshmen in 6-foot-9 center Isaiah Fox and 6-1 shooting guard Salim Stoudamire.

The only other player who contributed significantly last year was then-sixth man Luke Walton, who will start at small forward. Arizona also will start 6-9 junior power forward Rick Anderson, who redshirted last year and appears to be the Wildcats' best perimeter shooter. Only two of Arizona's nine reserves played last year. The Wildcats have one senior.

"The freshmen, we know, are not going to do the job in the early going," Olson said. "The juniors have got to make sure there are no questions in the young guys' minds."

As a result, the Wildcats begin the season unranked for the first time since 1990, although Williams is taking nothing for granted. A victory by Maryland would send the Terps into tomorrow's tournament title game against the winner of tonight's clash between No. 6 Florida and No. 16 Temple.

"Arizona will be all right. They are coming in thinking they can win this game," Williams said.

The Terps should have too many horses for the Wildcats to tame.

In addition to Dixon and Baxter, the shooting guard and center who were the top two scorers last year, respectively, Maryland boasts junior point guard Steve Blake, who led the ACC in assists last season and will start the 70th game of his collegiate career tonight. Senior guard/forward Byron Mouton returns to start. He replaced Danny Miller, eventually pushing him to transfer to Notre Dame.

As for the power forward spot vacated by Terence Morris, junior Tahj Holden and high-flying sophomore Chris Wilcox have battled since Day One of practice for a starting job. Williams had not decided yesterday on a starter, but he is leaning toward Holden, who has more experience and a better feel for the Maryland system.

"Chris gives you a tremendous amount of athletic ability at that power forward spot, which few teams have," Williams said. "Tahj does a good job of running the offense. He's very calm out there. He plays good team defense. You don't see the spectacular dunk, but a lot of good things go on out there when Tahj is on the floor. They will both play a lot of minutes this year."

Expect Williams to try numerous combinations during the next two nights.

Junior Drew Nicholas will play at both guard positions and should get an additional look in a three-guard alignment. Holden probably will play some small forward behind Mouton, whom Williams wants more minutes, scoring and rebounding from this season. Mouton often ran into foul trouble a year ago. Look for 6-9 junior Ryan Randle to get notable minutes off the bench at the Garden.

Williams also wants the Terps to set a different tone this time around. Maryland took a No. 5 preseason ranking into the Maui Invitational last year and limped home with a 1-2 start as the tournament's biggest flop.

"You'd like to think we'll play at a higher level than you normally are playing at this time of year. Hopefully, we're good from the start," he said.

Tourney data

Coaches vs. Cancer Classic Site: Madison Square Garden, New York

Tonight's games: No. 6 Florida vs. No. 16 Temple, 6:30, ESPN2

No. 2 Maryland vs. Arizona, 9, ESPN2

Tomorrow night's games: Consolation, 6:30, ESPN2 Championship, 9, ESPN Radio: Maryland games on WBAL (1090 AM)

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