Young Terps ready to grow

Williams' roster includes 4 sophomores, 5 freshmen

College Basketball

October 09, 2003|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - Sophomore John Gilchrist gave a respectful nod to former point guard Steve Blake, looked around the Comcast Center gym at his new teammates, and shrugged off the inexperience that marks the Maryland Terrapins.

Never mind that Maryland is depending heavily on four sophomores, one senior in his second year at the Division I level and a five-man freshman class. Never mind that the Terps could begin the year unranked for the first time in four seasons.

Gilchrist, who backed up Blake and now has his job, stopped short of calling himself the team's new leader, even though he talked the part pretty well.

"It's a passing of the torch, if you will. Blake left a high standard. His name is in the rafters," Gilchrist said of Maryland's career assists leader. "I'm just trying to do the same thing he did - bring home a national championship.

"Last year I felt like a tourist. You'd see all the places you dreamed about playing in. This year, I'm here to win games, not sightsee or play around. It's more business-oriented."

Starting with Gilchrist, who averaged 4.6 points and 1.7 assists and showed the ability to penetrate and force turnovers a year ago, the Terps will soon begin the work of maintaining their program's high standard.

Two seasons removed from winning its only national championship and making its second straight trip to the Final Four, Maryland is starting anew. Literally.

Joining Gilchrist among the returning players are sophomore guard Chris McCray, sophomore forwards Nik Caner-Medley and Travis Garrison, and senior center/forward Jamar Smith, entering his second season after transferring from Allegany College. Reserves Andre Collins, Mike Grinnon and walk-on Darien Henry represent the junior class.

Rounding out the team is the freshman quintet of guards Mike Jones and D.J. Strawberry, forward Ekene Ibekwe and centers Hassan Fofana and Wil Bowers.

Maryland coach Gary Williams said, from top to bottom, this is the most inexperienced team he has coached in his 26 years, including the past 15 at Maryland.

His only Terps teams that compare are the 1999-2000 edition that featured sophomores Juan Dixon, Lonny Baxter and Danny Miller and Blake as a freshman, and the 1993-1994 squad led by freshmen Joe Smith and Keith Booth and sophomores Duane Simpkins, Johnny Rhodes and Exree Hipp.

The Smith-Booth team went 18-12 and started Maryland's current, 10-year run of NCAA tournament appearances. The Dixon/Baxter team won 25 games.

"We walk on the floor with a veteran coaching staff. We're excited about it," said Williams, who has a 295-153 record at Maryland and is 502-281 overall."We don't feel like we're at the peak of what we can do as a basketball program. It will be very interesting to see when the confidence kicks in."

Caner-Medley, who is fully recovered from a dislocated ankle he suffered in the season-ending loss to Michigan State in the NCAAs, said he thinks the Terps will turn plenty of heads and win plenty of games. He likes the athleticism and versatility he sees. He is also eager to get back on the floor in a practice setting, with his health problems behind him.

"I look at basketball a lot differently. I was so happy to have a ball in my hands this summer," said Caner-Medley, who, along with Smith, averaged 5.9 points last season, leading all returning players.

"Whether or not you're ranked, it's what you do on the court [that matters]. Preseason rankings go out the door the day practice starts. When you have so many young and talented guys, there's going to have to be people who step up."

Will it be a blue-chip recruit such as Jones or Ibekwe? Will Gilchrist elevate his game and become one of the top point guards in the Atlantic Coast Conference? Will Smith produce double-doubles on a regular basis? Will Maryland become a deep, dangerous, pressing team that pieces together winning streaks?

Assistant coach Dave Dickerson said he can't wait to find out.

"All of the kids have chips on their shoulders, especially the sophomores. It's their chance to step up and put their imprint on the program," said Dickerson, entering his eighth year at Maryland.

"I know there are a lot of guys who don't know a lot, and it's our job to teach them. This is a chance for us to start another run. It's a coach's dream."

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