In new UM home, Nicholas finds comfort in old role

October 10, 2002|By Mike Preston

COLLEGE PARK - While University of Maryland officials were showing off their new basketball "house" at the 17,100-seat Comcast Center yesterday, senior Drew Nicholas was talking about returning to his old home. And he wasn't referring to Cole Field House.

After years of being a reserve shooting guard, a backup point guard and at times a No. 2 small forward, Nicholas is now the bona fide starter at shooting guard, finally No. 1 at the No. 2 position.

So as Maryland held its media day yesterday, two days before Midnight Madness, Nicholas was all smiles about returning to his natural position, the one he played coming out of Long Island Lutheran High in Hempstead, N.Y. It's almost like a dream, as if he were clapping his Nikes together and repeating, "There's no place like home, there's no place like home, there's no place ... "

"It's just truly exciting," said the 6-foot-3, 160-pound Nicholas. "This is the kind of opportunity I've been waiting for for a long time. Sitting behind Juan [Dixon, former Terps All-American], I learned a lot from him, a lot of different ways how to score. Once I get to have my minutes, I'm going to put the ball in the basket."

Nicholas is a pure shooter. Feet apart. Shoulders square. Eyes focused on the basket. An 18-wheeler could roll by him while he was shooting and he wouldn't flinch. But we haven't gotten a chance to see a lot of Nicholas shooting because he had other duties.

Like backing up Steve Blake at point guard and Dixon at shooting guard. Or coming in to play defense because of those long arms. Nicholas didn't mind, because he was the consummate team player. His role-playing was crucial for the Terps as they won the national championship last season. He averaged 7.1 points, 2.3 rebounds and 20.5 minutes per game.

Who can forget the two three-pointers Nicholas hit against Virginia as Maryland erased a nine-point deficit in the final two minutes? When Blake struggled in the NCAA tournament last season, Nicholas kept turning in steady performances. He had eight points against Wisconsin, then an eight-point, five-assist effort vs. Kentucky.

All coming off the bench.

"Just thinking about that night [winning the national championship] still sends chills through my body," Nicholas said. "It's such an incredible experience, and not too many people get to experience something like that. But now I'm working on the present. Hopefully, we'll be able to go there and do it one more time."

If that happens, Nicholas has to step up. He has to get into the flow right away.

Terps coach Gary Williams already has made the challenge to Nicholas, center Ryan Randle and power forward Tahj Holden, all seniors who came off the bench last season.

"We're very fortunate to have four returning seniors who played a lot," Williams said. "Not many teams in the country can say that. If you look at the tapes of the semifinals and finals, you see a Drew Nicholas, a Ryan Randle and a Tajh Holden playing key roles. Now for them, we have to change their roles.

"A lot of those guys will have to start. Besides Steve Blake, they have to go from coming off the bench and contributing to starting. That's part of the deal, and that's what we're supposed to do in their progression."

The Terps will be playing with chips on their shoulders. Despite being the defending national champions, they aren't getting a lot of preseason attention because they lost Dixon, center Lonny Baxter and forwards Chris Wilcox and Byron Mouton.

Plus, the Terps are playing in a new house. There is an intimacy about the place. The highest seat seems close. There are video screens for replays, and an additional, 1,400-seat gym will serve as home for the Terps' volleyball, gymnastics and wrestling teams.

The Terps want to maintain a tradition similar to the one they had at Cole, where they were tough to beat.

"We're definitely coming in wanting to win another national championship, that's the only way to look at it," Nicholas said. "If you take a look around the country, I think experience is the big key in college basketball.

"Nowadays, it's all about chemistry. Every team has guys who can score, who can handle the ball, who can rebound. It's about how well a team can play together.

"People are going to say we lost a lost, but we have a lot of guys who are eager to play in their new roles, The atmosphere is going to be great, and this is going to be a great forum. Despite the change, the fans will be just as noisy and aggressive as they were last year."

But how about the team?

And what about Nicholas?

He has to replace Dixon, who averaged 20.4 points last season. Dixon was the Terps' leader and carried them on his shoulders in the postseason.

Nicholas has as much confidence. He is comfortable in his new home, and his old one, as well.

"I know my points and my shots are going to come to me within the flow of the offense," Nicholas said. "I learned from the best. I learned from Juan Dixon. I'm going to use some of the things he taught me. But I can still outshoot him."

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