COLLEGE PARK - Senior point guard Steve Blake waited for three years to inherit the kind of freedom he has enjoyed in the Maryland Terrapins' offense. Senior shooting guard Drew Nicholas waited for three years to become a starter who expected to play at least 30 minutes every night.
Together, the backcourt of Blake and Nicholas represents the backbone of Maryland, as the Terps begin the defense of their first NCAA championship.
On a team that has gotten sometimes wildly inconsistent play from its frontcourt, Blake and Nicholas are the closest things to go-to guys on the Maryland roster. And in the NCAA tournament setting that places a premium on effective guard play, Blake and Nicholas probably will be the force that drags the Terps (19-9) as far as they can go.
For Nicholas, Maryland's leading scorer and the No. 3 scorer in the Atlantic Coast Conference, it's a chance to star on a stage that Juan Dixon, the former All-American and ACC Player of the Year, commanded. For Blake, it's a chance to put the finishing touches on a four-year run at Maryland, where he owns school records in starts and assists.
And for Blake, the NCAAs offer him a shot at personal redemption, one year after he struggled badly at times in the postseason, and two weeks after a sudden scoring slump has observers wondering if he is about to stumble once again in March.
Unlike a year ago, when Chris Wilcox, East Regional Most Valuable Player Lonny Baxter and, of course, Dixon - the Final Four MVP - picked up the slack in the postseason, Blake knows his margin for error has narrowed considerably. He needs to be an effective scorer, passer and defender. And don't think the slender, 6-foot-3 floor leader doesn't burn to make amends.
"I don't know if I put too much pressure on myself last year [in the tournament], but I just didn't play well," said Blake, reflecting on his 7-for-29 shooting in the last five games of Maryland's title march.
"I don't plan on that happening this year. I need to be playing at the top of my game. I like to put that pressure on myself. If I play well, I'm going to make my teammates better, and we'll go far. I plan on playing well throughout [the tournament]."
Blake, who is averaging career highs in scoring (11.9) and shots per game (9.1) and is 47 assists away from becoming only the fourth player in Division I history to reach 1,000, needs a quick reversal to make that happen.
After a strong regular season that earned him first-team, All-ACC recognition, a year in which he led the conference in three-point shooting percentage (.423), maintained his ability to make clutch shots and distributed the ball well enough to lead the league in assists for the third straight year, Blake is trying to find his stroke again.
Over the past three games, the last two of which were Maryland losses, Blake has shot only 25 percent (7-for-28). He also retains the bad taste of last week's 84-72 upset loss to North Carolina in the ACC tournament quarterfinals. Blake committed a season-high seven turnovers and missed seven of 11 shots.
"Steve is not a perfect player, just a very determined player who always seems to make a great play after he makes a mistake," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "He tries to make the tough play. He wants to take the big shot. He's got guts.
"I've seen him miss a lot of shots when we're up by 15, but I've seen him make a lot of them when we really need them. That's the mark of a great player, and Steve has had a great four years here. This is Steve's team."
Nicholas, also 6-3, is relishing the opportunity to expand on by far his most productive regular season, averaging 17.7 points. That was a league-high 10.6-point improvement over last year.
Before finally becoming a primary option in Maryland's offense, Nicholas paid his dues. After being recruited as a pure shooter out of Long Island (N.Y.) Lutheran High School, Nicholas honed his ball-handling skills to get more minutes as a backup point guard as a sophomore, then put in significant time as a role player at three guard spots last year, when he averaged 20.5 minutes and 7.1 points.
"It was tough waiting all of that time, trying to get my chance, knowing I could play at this level if given the opportunity to start," said Nicholas, who has averaged 31.5 minutes this season and still feels at times as if he is in Dixon's shadow. "We had Juan, and I wasn't stealing any of his minutes. I had to wait. I really think it made me a better basketball player, because I had to learn more situations."
Nicholas, who also leads Maryland in free throws made (104), foul-shooting percentage (.846) and has made 41.1 percent of his three-point attempts, earned All-ACC second-team recognition, barely missing the first team. That disappointed him, especially since he hit a game-winning three-pointer to beat North Carolina State shortly before the regular season ended.