Youthful Terps look to break full-court press of uncertainty

Growing pains expected

UM tips off vs. American

November 22, 2003|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - One month of practices has taught the Maryland Terrapins some useful things. One exhibition game defeat four nights ago provided them with a more pointed lesson.

When neighboring American University comes to Comcast Center to help Maryland christen a new era tonight, the Terps officially will confront a year that figures to be long on unpredictability, inconsistency and growing pains.

This is what happens when a team's roster is overhauled, when four starters depart for the second consecutive season, leaving a herd of sophomores and freshmen in charge. The Terps are beginning a year unranked for the first time since 1999, and are far removed from the 32-4 squad that produced the school's only NCAA title just 19 months ago.

Ready or not, here they come again. And no one knows how ready they are, beginning with 26-year coach Gary Williams, entering his 15th season at his alma mater.

"You've got to see how guys react to the pressure. You want to find out who the gamers are," Williams said. "Every season [the picture] changes, but not this dramatically.

"You have to win games. You have to get better. Can we be consistent? Until we show what we can do, we're just going to put it out there as best as we can. Certain games [in the past] you expect to win. Not this year. Hopefully, we've learned enough to win on Saturday."

With so much youth and inexperience at the Terps' core, it's hard not to envision early headaches. The first phase of their schedule is marked by dangerous dates against the likes of Wisconsin, Gonzaga and Florida, not to mention an Atlantic Coast Conference opener at Florida State on Dec. 28.

And with so many players learning a new offensive and defensive system, learning how to work together and adjust to the pace of a high-powered, Division I game and the grind of a long year in a tough league, little can be taken for granted.

On the surface, Maryland feels very good about its chances tonight. In terms of size and athleticism, the Terps have a decided advantage over the Eagles, who are led by former Virginia coach Jeff Jones and compete in the Patriot League. Under Williams, Maryland is 7-0 in season openers at home.

Beneath the surface, the Terps want to prove to their fans and themselves that they can play with enough fire, cohesion and discipline to knock out American, where Williams got his head coaching start 25 years ago. His 1980-81 squad lost by 30 points to Maryland, then led by Albert King and Buck Williams and coached by Lefty Driesell.

This year's Maryland model will be carried by kids, starting with sophomores John Gilchrist at point guard and Nik Caner-Medley at small forward and senior center (but second-year Terp) Jamar Smith, and extending to freshmen such as guards Mike Jones and D.J. Strawberry, power forward Ebene Ibekwe and center Will Bowers.

The Terps' learning curve accelerated Tuesday night, when the Roanoke Dazzle, an NBA minor league team, overcame a 16-point first-half deficit with relative ease, scored 51 second-half points, and pushed the skinnier Terps around Comcast Center, 81-72. It was Maryland's first exhibition loss since dropping a 1993 decision to the Australian national team.

"That game opened our eyes. We just have to regroup," sophomore forward Travis Garrison said. "It has occurred to me that if we lose [tonight], it's going to be real bad. I don't expect us to lose. We have to stay within our offense."

Starting tonight, the Terps want to begin establishing an identity. In other words, get the ball inside with some regularity, find some legitimate threats in the post, get physical down low at both ends.

Maryland wants to find a true post man. Smith is more of a face-up player who likes to shoot jumpers, although he did make 16 preseason trips to the foul line. Garrison grabbed 23 rebounds in two preseason games but is not comfortable with his back to the basket. The Terps love the potential of the 6-foot-9 Ibekwe, although he needs to get stronger and improve his shot selection.

Hassan Fofana and Bowers are the future in the pivot, but neither is ready to make an instant impact. Fofana, 6-10, has shown a rebounding presence but little shooting touch. Bowers, 7-1, has a nice jumper but only one rebound in 24 preseason minutes.

Gilchrist and Chris McCray will set the tone in the backcourt, although McCray has been bothered by a sore ankle and could be limited tonight. Among the freshmen, Strawberry looked more comfortable while scoring eight preseason points, while Jones has been tentative as he settles into Williams' flex offense.

Gilchrist, sporting a shaved head and brimming with confidence he gained while backing up Steve Blake effectively last season, is eager to get the work in progress moving forward.

"Winning puts everybody on the right path, and we're here to complete a task," he said. "I actually have no fear [about tonight]. Win or lose, just play hard. If you have enough talent, that's usually good enough. I feel we're going to have a great program this year."

Terps tonight

Matchup:American vs. Maryland in season opener for both teams

Site:Comcast Center, College Park


TV/Radio:Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)

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