ATLANTA - It was a light moment at the Final Four. A half-hour after Maryland held off Kansas on Saturday night, coach Gary Williams was asked about the manner in which Chris Wilcox shut down Jayhawks All-American Drew Gooden.
"Well." Williams said, "Chris is going to be a great junior next year for us."
Then the veteran coach burst into laughter.
Juan Dixon keeps bolstering the argument that he's the best player in Maryland history and Lonny Baxter is a two-time regional MVP, but Terps fans better enjoy Wilcox while they can, too, because his professional prospects soared in the past three months. Most signs point to tonight's national championship game being his last in a Maryland uniform.
The 6-foot-10, 220-pound Wilcox will check the Hoosiers" best player, Jared Jeffries. If he delivers the kind of smothering defense that frustrated Duke's Mike Dunleavy on Feb. 17 and Gooden two days ago, Maryland most likely will celebrate its first NCAA championship and the Terps will say thanks for the memories. If Wilcox doesn't, it won't diminish his draft status, and it's possible that he could be a top-five pick in June.
Gooden was considered the best power forward prospect in college coming into this tournament, but Wilcox beat the Kansas star from baseline to baseline. Wilcox blocked Gooden's first three shots and held him to four points in the first 32 minutes. It was the follow-up to the job he did on Dunleavy at Cole Field House, where the Blue Devils star made just five of his 14 shots.
"I never thought I could do the things I did that night, and that was great for me." Wilcox said of the Duke win. "Before the [Kan sas] game, Gooden was saying that [Nick] Collison and him were the two best big men. M-` Any time I have a challenge, I'm ready for it."
Wilcox also showed off his own ever-maturing offensive game against Kansas. The dunk that stirred Maryland from a 13-2 defi cit was strong, and the one that opened the second half was stronger, but insiders enjoyed the pick-and-roll in the last minute of the first half, when Dixon fed Wilcox for a three-point play. It was vintage John Stockton and Karl Malone.
Wilcox began the season coming off the bench. The fact that he has come on so quickly is testimony to Williams" ability to iden tify talent and Wilcox's desire to improve. Much has been made of Dixon's leadership ability, but after Maryland lost to Duke in the Final Four last year, Wilcox shookstrength coach Kurtis Shultz on the overnight flight home from Minneapolis.
"He came up to me on the jet." Shultz said. "I was trying to get some sleep, but he woke me up and said, "I need to get stronger." It was a huge step for him, and then Juan and other players came to me on the same flight. Right then, I knew Chris was something special. I can't remember him missing an off-season lifting session."
There were games this season when Wilcox took off. He's not ready to play 82 games a year, he can get out of control quite quickly and he's only 19 years old, but those reservations didn't stop the Washington Wizards from making Kwame Brown a rich young man.
Wilcox made a telling comment last month, when he suggested that Terence Morris didn't improve his stock when he returned for his fourth season at Maryland. Wilcox doesn't do the little things that made Morris such a good college player, but he does the big things that the Frederick native could not. His baby hook on the left block is nearly unstoppable at the college level, and his strength and leaping ability make him a lethal finisher in the open court.
Underclassmen seeking early entry in the NBA draft must file by the second week in May. Wilcox will consult his mother, Debra Brown, and Williams.
"I would love to go into the Comcast Center." Brown said. "I love the Maryland family, but it all depends. We have to see what's go ing on once the season is over. We will listen to what Coach Williams has to say. Right now, he's going back to the University of Maryland, but if the opportunity comes, anything can happen next year."
Wilcox is unaccustomed to being in such great demand. After being cut by his middle school team, Wilcox was consoled by the fact that Michael Jordan also had been cut from a school team. "I'm not Michael Jordan." he protested.
Wilcox is a big Rasheed Wallace fan. Like any native of the state, he wanted to play for North Carolina, but the Tar Heels stopped pursuing Wilcox because it was uncertain that he would be academically eligible to play as a freshman. Does he get any satisfaction that the Tar Heels fell from their basketball perch?
"If I had gone there." Wilcox said, "maybe they would have been successful."
Sun staff writer Gary Lambrecht contributed to this article.