Terps put fresh look on start of season

Four senior starters, strong cast of recruits elevate defending champs

October 08, 2002|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - Maryland men's basketball coach Gary Williams can practice dry, deadpan humor with the best of them, and when asked to sum up the approaching season, his expression masked any hint of a joke.

"It's like any other year, really," Williams said. "It's just that we have more things to put behind us this year."

Has there ever been a more unique time in the history of Maryland basketball?

Six months after defeating Indiana in the NCAA tournament title game, six months after Juan Dixon tossed a ball high into the Georgia Dome air before falling to the floor while embracing Lonny Baxter, the Terrapins are a changed program in more ways than one.

For the first time ever, the Terps are defending national champions. In just under seven weeks, they officially will leave storied Cole Field House behind and open a new on-campus arena.

For the first time in what seems like forever, Maryland will face a world without Dixon and life without Baxter, the cornerstones of back-to-back Final Four trips and last season's 32-4 run that culminated in the sweetest victory. They are plying their trade now in the NBA.

The Terps have the same, old coach in Williams, 57, who, after the busiest offseason of his 25-year career, heads into the 14th season at his alma mater and should collect his 500th victory sometime in February. But his team will have an altogether different face.

Four starters are gone, including small forward Byron Mouton and power forward Chris Wilcox, who skipped his final two years of collegiate eligibility and joined the Los Angeles Clippers as an NBA draft lottery pick.

Among Dixon, Baxter, Mouton and Wilcox, Maryland lost a combined 58.7 points and 24.9 rebounds a game. They lost the school's all-time leading scorer in Dixon and a two-time NCAA tournament regional Most Valuable Player in Baxter. They lost the most accomplished one-two punch in school history.

As for any perception that - despite returning four seniors who should start, led by four-year starting point guard Steve Blake - Maryland will not be part of another championship picture and is not the team to beat in the Atlantic Coast Conference, senior power forward Tahj Holden would beg to differ.

"I hope teams overlook us. A lot of people are saying we can't repeat," said Holden, alluding to a preseason ESPN poll that placed the Terps at No. 22. "We lost, what, 2,200 points from Juan and nearly 1,000 rebounds from Lonny. That will be very tough to replace, but we have guys who can play. I think knowing how to win gets overlooked a lot."

"How many teams have four senior starters, especially seniors who have been through what we've been through? Not many. That counts for a lot," said Blake, who has started 105 games at Maryland. "And it's not just four seniors. It's four seniors who can play. That is going to be an advantage for us."

Starting with the formal introduction of his team at what should be a tremendously emotional Midnight Madness event Friday night at Comcast Center, Williams will get cracking on molding a new squad.

"When we went into last year, there weren't many mysteries about our team," Williams said. "The toughest thing about last year was not to believe all the hype and to make sure we accepted our roles and worked hard. With this year's team, there are a lot of questions. Who's going to play and where? How much playing time are the new guys going to get? The first week of practice is going to be interesting."

Williams will lean heavily on his seniors, who also include Drew Nicholas, who will be almost exclusively at shooting guard after paying his dues as a three-position bench weapon. Center Ryan Randle, who maximized production in 9.6 minutes a game the way few big men could last season, figures to be a 25-minute man as a senior.

Williams also must fashion roles for returnees Andre Collins (point guard), Mike Grinnon (small forward) and Calvin McCall (guard) and an eagerly anticipated incoming class.

The newcomers include 6-foot-7 small forward Nik Caner-Medley, who appears to have the early track on winning a starting job. Then there is highly touted 6-1 point guard John Gilchrist, 6-4 shooting guard Chris McCray and 6-9 forwards Travis Garrison and junior Jamar Smith, who followed Randle to College Park from Allegany Community College. Smith and Garrison figure to spend lots of preseason time at both forward positions.

Unlike in recent years, when the more-seasoned Terps played in much-hyped preseason tournaments - they opened on Nov. 8 last year with a loss to Arizona in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic - Williams has bypassed such events in the interest of practice time. There is the flex offense and his style of man-to-man defense to teach to nearly half of his players for the first time.

After the start of practice, six weeks will pass before Maryland formally opens its title defense at home against Miami (Ohio) on Nov. 24.

"It won't be pretty. The offense won't be smooth. The timing comes as you play together more," Williams said. "We'll be a little rough coming off the bench this year, especially early in the season. I have to keep the veteran guys interested, without going too fast with the younger guys.

"The last 12 months have been amazing. Undefeated at Cole, a national championship, the Juan Dixon story, a new arena. Now, the challenges are completely different. That's what keeps me hungry. The fear of the unknown is a great motivator. But I know we have some talent."

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