UM's Williams expects young team to come of age

October 09, 2003|By MIKE PRESTON

COLLEGE PARK - The college basketball season is still eight days away, but University of Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams has rolled up his sleeves and issued a guarantee.

"We have a young team this year. We have nine guys who are either freshmen or sophomores," Williams said yesterday at media day.

And, with that out of the way, he promised he would not make age an issue again.

"I guarantee you one thing: This is the last time you'll ever hear me talk about us being a young team because on Oct. 17, we're just a team, not a young team, but a basketball team," Williams said. "My goal every year is to win every game possible. There is no rebuilding, nothing like that. We have a great deal of pride in our basketball program."

I like that. Say no more.

If there is a coach made for this job, it's Williams, 58. The guy loves the underdog role. It's part of his personality that is fiery, combative and smug at times. He dares you to knock the chip off his shoulder.

And he's got a big one on top of those designer suits these days.

Take a look at most of the preseason publications, and Maryland is predicted to finish in the second tier of the nine-team Atlantic Coast Conference. And rightfully so. The Terps' top two returning scorers from a year ago are sophomore forward Nik Caner-Medley and senior center/forward Jamar Smith, both of whom averaged a whopping 5.9 points last season.

The Terps also don't have a proven big man or a proven point guard. There are enough questions about this team to start a new TV quiz game show.

But Williams, in his 15th season at Maryland, isn't sweating. Shoot, he can't wait for practice to start. Bring on Duke and its crybaby coach, North Carolina and Wake Forest. Williams is looking forward to the Baby Terps taking their first steps.

"Any time you have five freshmen coming in, you have a lot of question marks," Williams said. "Because no matter how good they were in high school, you don't know how that's going to translate into being college freshmen playing against some very good teams. There is some pressure on these guys to be good right away. We expect them to be able to help us."

Williams has been down this road before.

During the 1993-94 season, he started two freshmen in Keith Booth and Joe Smith along with three sophomores in Exree Hipp, Johnny Rhodes and Duane Simpkins, with another sophomore, Mario Lucas, as the sixth man. The Terps finished 18-12 and advanced to the Sweet 16.

In the 1999-2000 season, Williams started sophomores Lonny Baxter, Juan Dixon and Danny Miller along with freshman Steve Blake and junior Terence Morris. Freshmen Tahj Holden and Drew Nicholas also got playing time coming off the bench. The Terps finished 25-10.

So, what gives?

It's all about adjusting. Despite his explosive antics on the sidelines, Williams knows when to preach and when to teach. He'll have his emotional outbursts this season, but he'll spend much more time slapping backsides and handing out compliments.

"With young guys, you have to evaluate more each day," Williams said. "This year, teaching is going to be a priority. Last year, even the year before that, we had a pretty good idea of our eight-man rotation. We had a pretty good idea of what were the best plays for individual guys. We still have to find those things out when we start practice this year."

Williams does a good job of recruiting blue-collar types like Baxter, Blake or Dixon who are willing to put in extra time on the court or in the weight room. They may have more like that now in freshman guard D.J. Strawberry, sophomore point guard John Gilchrist and Caner-Medley.

After only a month on campus, Strawberry understands Williams' work ethic.

"I thought I was in shape when I came here, and then I realized I was in no kind of shape," Strawberry said. "I was just out of breath every time I did one drill. I've just been working on getting in condition and getting ready in practice. I knew he [Williams] was a good teacher before I came here, but I've already gotten a lot better. I can't wait until we start practice."

You can already see and feel the confidence, and Basketball 101 hasn't even started. Williams plans to keep it simple. He isn't interested in moving a lot of players around on offense despite a lot of versatility.

"When you start a freshman and try to move him to a couple of different places on offense, that can become tough," Williams said. "The big thing for us is that everybody plays defense well and to make sure that we understand about passing the basketball. That's going to be very important this year. As long as we keep those fundamental things and keep them at a high level, I think we'll be OK."

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