Maryland's frontcourt looms large

Size, talent and depth give Terps big edge as NCAA quest begins

`Great chemistry down low'

Baxter, Wilcox, Holden and Randle equalizers for top-seeded UM

Ncaa Tournament

March 15, 2002|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - The Maryland Terrapins have thrived on this approach for the past two seasons, and if they are to return to the Final Four and win the first national championship in school history, they fully understand the law they must follow.

The big men shall set the tone, and they must be fed.

With all due respect to Juan Dixon and Steve Blake and the axiom that great guard play is the crucial key in March, the Maryland frontcourt of starters Lonny Baxter and Chris Wilcox and backups Tahj Holden and Ryan Randle gives the Terps an edge in the paint that few teams, if any, enjoy among the NCAA tournament field.

"We've got a lot of beef up front. It's a very big advantage, and we plan to use it in this tournament," said Baxter, the senior center whose top-seeded Terps (26-4) open their ninth consecutive NCAA tournament trip tonight against 16th-seeded Siena at MCI Center.

Maryland coach Gary Williams has preached a consistent message throughout his program's two-year run, which includes a 36-6 record and a Final Four berth since the Terps lost their last game at Cole Field House on Feb. 14, 2001.

Get the ball inside, where the big men can use their size and strength advantages to go for high-percentage shots and get to the free-throw line. Get the ball inside, where post players can draw double teams and pass the ball to guards who have a clear look at the basket. Whether the opponent is throwing a man-to-man or zone defense at you, do not settle for quick jump shots. Pound it inside, and let the offense flow from there.

Williams has never had such a tall, bulky, athletic group with which to make his vision work. Think of Maryland's interior foursome, and think of about a half ton of beef with the ability to run the floor, hit the boards, block shots and blend their complementary skills.

"To my knowledge, nobody in the country has four powerful post players with their depth, strength and experience," Virginia coach Pete Gillen said of the Terps.

Said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski: "Depth is nice, but quality depth is better, and Gary has put them in a system where the big guys have all accepted their roles, and that's very important. They know that when they go to any of those four guys, there's never a drop-off because of that."

Because of that, Dixon, the team's leading scorer, has not had to carry Maryland night after night, and the Terps rarely spend a game taking or missing a string of questionable shots. The big men have a way of opening up the floor for others. For example, watch the screens that 6-foot-10, 250-pound Holden sets for shooters like Dixon or backup guard Drew Nicholas. Ouch.

"When we really have things going, we beat people up inside," said Nicholas, who checks in about 90 pounds lighter than Holden. "Teams have to collapse [on the post players]. That's when we get open shots. And anytime one of them gets the ball five feet from the basket, something good is happening. Us guards, we want to take our shots, but we don't mind if they shoot the ball."

The Terps are an amalgam of speed, power and unselfishness. They are equally comfortable setting up in a half-court offense and running their cherished fast break, and are ranked among the nation's elite with an 85.3-point scoring average that included a 90.5 average against the Atlantic Coast Conference, which they won by two games.

And their success runs through the foursome down low, which starts with Baxter at 6-8, 260 and Wilcox, 6-10, 230. Talk about a handful.

Baxter (15.1 ppg, 8.2 rpg), a three-time All-ACC player who leads the team in rebounding and led the league in blocked shots, is the blue-collar man who runs as well as some small forwards, can put the ball on the floor, and uses his few post moves to finish as well as any big man in the game. He can aggravate his coach with too many fouls or missed shots or free throws, but his effort is nonstop. He has 32 career double doubles.

Wilcox (11.7 ppg, 7.5 rpg) is the raw talent with an unlimited future. He is still developing a jump shot and lacks discipline at times, but with leaping ability matched by few, he seemingly can dominate the boards at will. He has left memorable imprints on the season with huge efforts in victories over Illinois and Duke, loves to pass and has improved his foul shooting dramatically.

"We have great chemistry down low," Wilcox said.

The chemistry is fueled by Holden and Randle, whose roles have evolved in the past two months.

Holden (5.6 ppg, 2.6 rpg) lost his starting job to Wilcox at the end of December, then blended into a strong bench seamlessly. Holden is the cerebral player of the group, the one who can stretch a defense with his outside shooting (44 percent on three-pointers) and delights in setting picks, making a slick pass and playing rough interior defense.

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