Terps' four are freshmen no more

Gilchrist, Caner-Medley lead pack's year of growth

Ncaa Tournament

March 18, 2003|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - Shortly before his team's regular-season opener, Maryland men's basketball coach Gary Williams said one of his main challenges over the next few months would be melding the old with the new.

Twenty-eight games into the season, as the Terps (19-9) prepare to defend their national title in their 10th straight NCAA tournament, Williams has reached a comfort level with the way his four freshmen complement Maryland's five-man senior class.

"It's been different this year. It's been a few years since I've had that many new guys working with that many veterans," Williams said.

"New guys always go through that period where they're trying to learn new plays. They get tentative because they're not sure. They have to adjust to the pace of the game. It takes time before they get back to playing naturally. I don't think you worry about playing any of them now."

The four freshman cornerstones of Maryland's future - point guard John Gilchrist, small forward Nik Caner-Medley, power forward Travis Garrison and shooting guard Chris McCray - have had their moments, good and bad.

Their progression and regression have reflected the inconsistency of a team that has enjoyed a pair of five-game winning streaks, a 10-1 spurt, and three two-game losing skids - the latest of which the Terps face as they encounter the NCAA tournament's pressure-packed, single-elimination setup.

Gilchrist and Caner-Medley have emerged as significant contributors, while Garrison and McCray have faded after peaking at earlier points in the season.

"I don't feel like a freshman anymore," said Gilchrist, who will take the ball from senior Steve Blake as Maryland's quarterback next year.

"I look at my job the same way now as I did when I played in my first game," added Gilchrist, a two-time Virginia player of the year at Salem High School who is averaging 4.5 points and 2.2 rebounds in 13.4 minutes a game at Maryland. "Every game is do-or-die to me. Every game is a proving process. Now that it's tournament time, I'm very excited and very ready for it."

More than any of the other freshmen, Gilchrist sets himself apart with his quickness and energy. No one among the Terps can drive to the basket and break down a defense better than Gilchrist.

At 6 feet 1 and a thick 190 pounds, he is tough to take the ball from, and he possesses excellent rebounding instincts. He had a game-high nine rebounds in a 40-point rout of North Carolina. After he grabbed five rebounds in a recent loss at Virginia, which out-rebounded the Terps by 23, Williams joked that he should have let Gilchrist play center.

"John is a big body who likes to bang around inside. He's played great lately, and he's been pretty consistent," said Williams, who has used Gilchrist, Blake and Drew Nicholas on many occasions in a three-guard set.

At 6-8, Caner-Medley (5.9 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 16.4 minutes) has been up-and-down enough to work his way into the starting lineup twice after coming off the bench for two stretches. The former state high school scoring champion in Maine, Caner-Medley splits the small forward position with senior Calvin McCall.

Among his best games were Jan. 30, when he guarded North Carolina State star swingman Julius Hodge superbly, scored nine points and added a career-high five steals in a 75-60 Maryland victory. There was also that career-high 14-point effort in a losing cause at Georgia Tech on Feb. 9.

But Caner-Medley, who spends as much time on the floor in pursuit of loose balls as any Terp, drove Williams nuts earlier in the season with his tendency to relax during games. Then again, even after he irked his coach by attempting a pair of ill-advised three-pointers early in the second half of Friday's ACC tournament loss to North Carolina, Caner-Medley drew Williams' praise for the way he scored five late points and competed in the final minutes that night.

"Nik was so good when he played in Maine, there was no strategy. Just give him the ball and get out of his way," Williams said. "Now he's playing against guys who can jump as he can and are as strong as he is. He is learning the game from a basketball strategy standpoint. His education in basketball has started."

The learning curve has been more uneven for McCray and Garrison. McCray, a 6-4 scoring star at nearby Fairmont Heights High School, hit a plateau around midseason, after he had averaged 7.5 points during a five-game stretch in January. McCray (3.1 ppg in 9.3 minutes), who has barely played since a scoreless eight-minute outing against Clemson on Feb. 25, has surrendered minutes to sophomore guard Andre Collins.

"Chris is going to be a good player, but he needs to add strength to his game," Williams said. "He played well for a while. I think the speed of the game caught up with him. He seemed to hit a wall."

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