It's a new season, indeed, for Maryland

Beating `complete lack of experience' Terps' task

College Basketball

October 07, 2003|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - Eighteen months ago, when they won the first NCAA men's college basketball title in school history, the Maryland Terrapins featured three senior starters who had spent a combined 14 seasons at the collegiate level.

Next month, when it opens a new season against American University at the Comcast Center, the entire Maryland squad will not boast that much maturity.

No wonder Terps coach Gary Williams is perhaps more eager than ever to get the preseason started. As he heads into his 15th year at Maryland and his 26th season overall, Williams has never had so many tenderfoots to teach.

"On the first day of practice [Oct. 18], we'll go five-on-five, and we'll lock the doors so the balls stay in the gym," said Williams, who added this will be the most youthful group he has ever led at any college.

"It's good for me, in terms of the excitement of coaching. This grabs your attention, because you realize we're going to have to do a lot to get competitive in a hurry. We're going to have to overcome a complete lack of experience."

What a transformation the Terps have undergone.

The only links remaining to the national title team are junior guard Andre Collins and junior forward Mike Grinnon, each of whom has played sparingly. Five other returners, including senior forward/center Jamar Smith, have one year of Division I seasoning. And only one of them - sophomore forward Nik Caner-Medley - has logged notable minutes as a starter.

Then there is the incoming, five-man class, led by highly touted 6-foot-5 shooting guard Mike Jones and 6-9 forward Ekene Ibekwe. They are talented newcomers, yet greenhorns all the same.

Don't be surprised if the Terps are picked to finish fifth in the Atlantic Coast Conference by the league's media. Don't be shocked if Maryland, which wound up No. 17 last year and has been ranked in 73 consecutive Associated Press polls, begins the year unranked for the first time since the dawn of the 1999-2000 season.

That was the year another young squad took the court in College Park, led by a freshman point guard named Steve Blake and featuring sophomores Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter. That team took some lumps early, came on to win 25 games, finished second in the Atlantic Coast Conference, lost in the ACC tournament final and made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Blake, the school's career leader in assists (972), is now a Washington Wizards teammate of Dixon's. Blake led an exodus that included four other starters in guards Drew Nicholas and Calvin McCall, power forward Tahj Holden and center Ryan Randle.

"Last year the challenge was trying to motivate guys to get off the NCAA championship and concentrate on the year at hand," Williams said. "This year's challenge is to teach and understand they are going to screw up. You don't teach in a day. I look at it as a chance to develop into a very good team."

Figuring out a rotation of eight to 10 players and blending them into a unit that can score consistently in the 80-point range should keep Williams and his staff plenty busy. Consider that Caner-Medley and Smith, each of whom averaged 5.9 points a game a year ago, are the top returning scorers.

The questions abound. Will Jones, the heralded shooter, overtake 6-4 sophomore Chris McCray and become a starter before long? Will 235-pound sophomore power forward Travis Garrison, who lived deep in Williams' doghouse a year ago, emerge as a consistent scorer and rebounder this time around? Or will the lanky, gifted Ebekwe nudge out the former DeMatha star?

Will Caner-Medley, fully recovered from the dislocated ankle he suffered during Maryland's NCAA tournament loss to Michigan State, complement his leaping ability with a more consistent shot and become a force at small forward? Will the 6-9 Smith, one of the better athletes in the ACC, be able to anchor the post and intimidate opponents at both ends of the court?

Will long-armed, 6-5 freshman D.J. Strawberry become a serious factor in the rotation at either guard position? And, will sophomore John Gilchrist, so dazzling at times last year with his ability to penetrate and create turnovers, become one of the game's top point guards?

"It's nice to go in with a guy that proved he could play the position last year," Williams said of Gilchrist. "I don't have any doubts he's going to be a very good point guard for us."

Picture the Terps potentially as an athletic collection of versatile, interchangeable parts. Look for lineups with three or even four guards at times.

"Is there a consistent shooter? I don't know," said Williams, who suspects a solid half-court game offense will take considerable time to develop. "You don't have to run perfect offense to score. You have to be creative."

The only players cut out for specific slots appear to be Gilchrist and freshman centers Hassan Fofana and Will Bowers. Bowers, 6-11, is a project in the Mike Mardesich mold. Fofana, 6-10, is a 290-pound behemoth who should be able to contribute as a defensive presence immediately.

"I don't care where Nik is, I want him on the floor. If D.J. Strawberry can play, he'll be on the floor and I don't care where he is. If Chris McCray or Mike Jones can play on the wing, fine," said Williams, who has 502 career wins (295 at Maryland), seven straight 20-victory seasons and has been to 10 straight NCAA tournaments.

"I've never been big on plugging guys into roles. I worry about getting those eight or nine guys who can play, and then figuring out the combinations. Let's just play."

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