COLLEGE PARK - There was some debate as to whether Maryland center Lonny Baxter deserved to have his jersey hung at Cole Field House yesterday with those of other Terps greats, but there should never have been any discussion.
Baxter deserves his place right alongside Len Elmore, John Lucas, Tom McMillen, Len Bias, Albert King, Joe Smith and other Maryland players who have made Cole a special place through the years.
Baxter doesn't have Elmore's post-up game, McMillen's outside touch or Lucas' athleticism, but he is the embodiment of college athletics and a major factor in the school's emergence as a national-championship contender.
Yesterday, as he has done so often, Baxter carried the Terps on his broad shoulders, scoring 25 points in Maryland's 90-89 win over Wake Forest, 19 in the first half when his team was suffering through a defensive identity crisis.
He collected nine rebounds, blocked three shots, had two steals and had his tongue hanging out of his mouth late in the game after playing an astounding 36 minutes.
The only other Maryland player to play 36 minutes yesterday was senior guard Juan Dixon, who also had his jersey number honored.
"When you look at Lonny as the only player to be MVP of an NCAA regional here at Maryland, with all of the great players ... and you look at Juan statistically and what he's done, and both of those guys have played on teams that won 100 games in four years, I think there is a pretty good argument for putting those two as the best tandem to play at Maryland," said Terps coach Gary Williams.
Let's not get carried away. Lucas and Elmore, or the Elmore and McMillen combinations, get my vote. But maybe that's why there was so much debate over Baxter, because he's always mentioned in tandem with Dixon, who has more flash and has made more clutch plays.
Dixon is the big-play receiver, and Baxter is the short-yardage performer. Dixon is the home run hitter, while Baxter sprays the ball.
Yet, that's the beauty of Baxter. The guy is strictly blue collar, a player that wasn't even close to being a blue-chipper coming out of high school.
He came to Maryland with potential - and baby fat.
"When I first got a hold of him, he had about 17 to 18 percent body fat," said Kurtis Shultz, the Terps' strength and conditioning coach. "Now, he's down to about 10 percent. He can probably bench-press 375 pounds for three reps, and squat about 475 to 500 pounds about 10 to 12 times.
"He did a lot of running in the off-season to shed off that fat," added Shultz. "When he was a sophomore, he didn't miss one sprint in the summer or the fall or the off-season. He was the only guy who didn't. ... He's one of the best players ever at Maryland. His numbers and play are extremely consistent."
Baxter is a grunt guy. There is nothing pretty about his game. He has about three or four post-up moves, and you can see most of his game in the first half. He commits some dumb fouls, and his missed foul shots have probably hurt his chances of averaging 20 points per game instead of the 15.5 he's averaging this season.
But you can't argue with his effort. Or the fact he has 30 double double career efforts, or is about to become the first Terp to eclipse 1,500 points and 1,000 rebounds in a career. He averaged 16.2 points and 10 rebounds through five NCAA tournament games last season as Maryland made its first Final Four appearance.
It's little wonder that Williams had tears in his eyes when he left the court after the pre-game ceremonies with Dixon and Baxter.
"Coach used to stay on Lonny a lot," said Shultz. "He always thought Lonny could go harder because Lonny doesn't look like he's going hard. He just looks so nonchalant. But once the game is over, Lonny will have 11 rebounds and about 16 to 19 points. On a good night, he'll get you 21 to 22."
Baxter's play is often unheralded. In the first half yesterday, Wake Forest took a 56-46 lead as Maryland shot 56.3 percent in the first 20 minutes. Dixon was 3-for-10 from the field and 1-for-8 from the three-point line. Forward Chris Wilcox didn't have a first-half rebound. Maryland had only two fast-break points, and no points from its bench.
But Baxter was 8-for-9 from the field. When Wake Forest went ahead by 12 with 2:22 remaining, it was Baxter who ran off the break to score on a layup with 1:33 remaining, and then pulled Maryland within eight on another layup 52 seconds later.
Baxter scored only six points in the second half, but the Demon Deacons knew he was in the lineup.
The ACC has been aware of him the past three seasons, with Baxter earning all-conference honors the past two years. Both Baxter and Dixon are finalists for the Wooden and Naismith awards given to the country's most outstanding players.
"Lonny is what basketball players used to be, which is to come in for four years and gradually become a very good basketball player," said Williams.
That's all you can ask. He has played to his potential, and then some. He has been a winner, with his class poised to become the first at Maryland to win 25 games in each of its four seasons.
Baxter will never be thought of in the same way as a Bias or a Lucas, but if a child one day asks his parents about the No. 35 jersey hanging from Maryland's new field house, there's a pretty good story they can tell about a self-made player from Silver Spring named Lonny Baxter.