With pieces in place, Maryland is best fit

Ncaa Tournament

March 29, 2002|By Mike Preston

WITH the exception of Indiana, the men's Final Four appears so close that it seems inevitable that the national championship will be decided by a last-second basket, foul shot, official's call or some bizarre sequence.

All four teams seem to have hit their stride. All four are fairly tough inside. Kansas is fun to watch with its transition game, and the Jayhawks ran Oregon out of the gym Sunday. Oklahoma has outstanding athleticism, especially inside, and is superb on the defensive end.

Maryland?

The Terps have the best overall chemistry, which might lead them to the national championship Monday night. The Terps have experience, leadership, balanced scoring and great toughness.

Toughness is often underrated because it's associated with being physical, or how well one handles pain. But there is a mental toughness, one that Terps guards Juan Dixon, Steve Blake and center Lonny Baxter possess.

Maryland forward Chris Wilcox has it, but he's not on that level just yet.

The Ravens had it during their Super Bowl run in 2000. Ray Lewis was a tough guy. So was Shannon Sharpe, and Sam Adams and Rob Burnett.

So are Blake, Baxter and Dixon.

They have that confidence, coldness and calmness, the ability to tune out anything and win. They all want the ball in crunch time; they all want to make the game-winning shot. All three carried Maryland to victory Sunday in the East Regional championship against Connecticut.

Baxter was the inside presence, Dixon hit the three-pointer that tied the score and Blake buried the Huskies with another three-pointer and two foul shots in the closing minute.

That trio has an edge, something the team severely lacked last season when it was Terrence Morris' team.

"We know the disappointment from last year," Wilcox said. "Last year, we went down there thinking we were the better team, and we lost. This year, we're going down there with the mentality of just playing hard all the time. We've got guys who have been leaders all year long. They won't allow us to lose. Everyone knows who they are."

Maryland has played with guts most of the season. The Terps came back against Virginia in late January, and spanked Duke in February after losing by 21 to the Blue Devils a month earlier. They had mental lapses against Florida State and North Carolina State in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament on March 8-9, but showed a sense of urgency last week in wins against Kentucky and Connecticut, two programs that have won national titles within the past five years.

And now, maybe it's Maryland's turn. The Terps have an edge in experience heading into the Final Four, the only team to return from a year ago. Because of the NBA snatching up players early from high school and college programs, it's unusual to find a program of Maryland's caliber with three seniors in the starting lineup. Kansas, for instance, has only one.

Maryland has Baxter, Dixon and forward Byron Mouton. Baxter and Dixon weren't blue-chippers coming out of high school, and worked extremely hard to develop as players. Mouton played at Maryland the past two seasons after transferring from Tulane.

"There is more to recruiting than just getting a player," Williams said. "Can they help us become a better team? Will they hurt the team personality wise? I look at all those things in recruiting somebody. I've been criticized over the years for not getting this guy, not getting that guy. I'll take my guys, and hopefully we can continue to get those same type of people we've had for the last seven or eight years in our program."

"There is an advantage to playing here last year," Williams said. "We know how this week works. Number one, we're not overwhelmed by the term Final Four. It's been a goal around here for a long time, and now it's easier to comprehend. We were the only team here last year that had not been to a Final Four and won a national championship. Hopefully, we'll walk out there with a lot of confidence this time. We were a team to beat this year, and it was good to feel that kind of pressure."

The Terps handled the pressure because their stars didn't have to put up big numbers every game, even though Dixon is averaging 20.1 points, and Baxter is averaging 15.6 points and 8.1 rebounds.

This is a Terps team that is deep and talented. During early and mid-January, Wilcox and Mouton had good performances in wins against Clemson, George Tech, North Carolina, and a loss to Duke. Mouton, until recently, had been a pleasant surprise on offense averaging 11.3 points, fourth to Wilcox at 11.9.

Swing guard Drew Nicholas is averaging 7.1 points and 20.4 minutes, and is a potent outside shooter. Backup forward Tahj Holden is averaging 5.5 points and provides the outside touch that Wilcox lacks.

"Guys have stepped up at numerous times," Holden said. "You just can't have three constants if you want to make a championship run. Wilcox brings athleticism, and he can go out and get 10 rebounds and 20 points if teams are keying on Lonny and Juan. Mouton brings a lot energy and heart. He'll give you 40 hard minutes if you ask him. Then you have Steve, Ryan Randle and Drew. Whatever it takes, one of us is going to step up."

Said Blake: "It's kind of unusual. Most teams have one superstar. But if someone is not making their shots, we don't say much about it. As a team, we understand who is hitting and who is not, and where the ball needs to go. Great teams have balance, and it's nice to have going into the Final Four. If you look at us and Kansas, both of us have balance."

But the Terps also have more of an overall team chemistry. It may not translate into a team title, but as Blake says, it's nice to have going into the Final Four.

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