Top Terp

Juan Dixon: A close examination of his career reveals a strong argument for the senior guard as Maryland's all-time best player.

Final Four

March 30, 2002|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- The questions regarding Juan Dixon evolved along with the fifth-year senior.

1996: Why is Gary Williams wasting a scholarship on a 140-pound kid from Calvert Hall?

1999: This is the guy who's going to replace Steve Francis at shooting guard?

2002: Is Dixon the best basketball player ever at the University of Maryland?

Now that you've cleaned up that coffee spill and choked down that bite of bran muffin, step back and really reconsider the case of Dixon. If NBA potential is your yardstick, he lags behind a pack that's led by John Lucas, Joe Smith and the late Len Bias, but if a performance in college is the criterion, then Dixon looks large.

Comparing the apples of the 1970s and the oranges of the '80s was hard enough without tossing in the carrot stick that is Dixon.

How do you peer through generation gaps and compare big men with guards, individual statistics against team success and four-year longevity as opposed to a season or two of brilliance? The argument can't be settled, but it's still a great way to pass a long day as Terps fans prepare for Episode 5 of Late Night with Juan Dixon, the hit miniseries on CBS.

The most informed critics -- former Maryland players -- always admired Dixon's guts, but they have come to rave about his game, too. The veterans revel in the Terps' breakthrough to two Final Fours, and appreciate Dixon because he was able to do what they were not. Lonny Baxter is a two-time regional most valuable player, but they swoon over Dixon's skills and clutch shooting.

First, let's deal with the knock against Dixon. Like Gene Shue, a fellow Baltimorean who set a Maryland scoring record in 1954 that would stand for two decades, Dixon thrived against watered-down competition. Shue played in the Southern Conference and the Atlantic Coast Conference when both were segregated. Now, with early entries to the NBA draft, the best college-age players are already playing pro.

Before he entered his sophomore year of high school, Albert King was a playground legend in Brooklyn, N.Y. Tom McMillen was also touted as the nation's best prep player, on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Lucas was featured in the magazine's "Faces in the Crowd." Bias was a raw talent, but his size and athleticism made him a can't-miss prospect.

Dixon? Outside of coach Gary Williams' office, he was viewed as a risk because of his thin, 6-foot-3 frame, and no one predicted he would become Baltimore's first consensus All-American since Dunbar's Reggie Williams for Georgetown in 1987.

Dixon didn't stack up coming to Maryland, and he won't stack up going, either -- he is expected to be drafted by the NBA no earlier than late in the first round.

Lucas and Smith were the first overall picks in the draft. Bias and Steve Francis were taken second. Buck Williams was the third selection.

A doubtful upside is what made Dixon so good at Maryland, and his approach was a stark contrast to the troika of the early 1970s. At night, Len Elmore worked his radio show, McMillen curled up with a textbook and Lucas sneaked into Ritchie Coliseum to hit tennis balls. Dixon? He could be found in Cole Field House, shooting.

Statistically, Dixon isn't unique just to College Park, but also to all of college basketball. He is the only player in the history of the game to collect 2,000 points, 300 steals and 200 three-pointers. Despite that defensive work, Dixon has never fouled out, one reason he's been part of a record 108 Maryland wins.

Let's see how Dixon fares one-on-one.

Dixon vs. Bias

Dixon has 2,218 career points; he broke Bias' school record on St. Patrick's Day. Dixon is the fourth Terp to be named ACC Player of the Year; Bias was the only one to earn the award twice. Bias averaged 16.4 points for his career, compared with Dixon's 16.0. NCAA success elevated Dixon's status; Bias guided the Terps to their only ACC tournament championship of the past 44 seasons.

Once Ben Coleman and Herman Veal were done doing the dirty work inside, Bias' teams went 4-4 in postseason play, and he never took Maryland past the Sweet 16. Bias could take hold of a game like few players, but Dixon made everyone around him better. Just as Keith Gatlin rode Bias to a career assist record, Steve Blake broke it by flipping the ball to Dixon.

Greg Manning played for Maryland from 1977 to 1981, and was the Terps' radio analyst from 1986 to '99.

"If I'm Steve Blake," Manning said, "I thank my lucky stars every night that I'm getting the ball to a guy who can knock down jump shots."

Dixon vs. Lucas

They are the only Maryland players named first-team All-ACC three straight seasons. Lucas was never conference Player of the Year, but he butted heads with N.C. State legend David Thompson. In the Encyclopedia of College Basketball, Lucas was the only Terp on the all-decade team for the 1970s.

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