Young Terps need to grow in hurry with Top 20 tape measure coming

No. 15 Wisconsin begins test of unbeaten Maryland

December 02, 2003|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - They have played an uneven stretch of winning basketball against three inferior opponents, and the unproven, unbeaten Maryland Terrapins are counting on a growth spurt over the next week.

Starting with tonight's visit by 15th-ranked Wisconsin, the first of three Top 20 men's teams on the schedule in their next four games, the Terps are about to discover some important things about themselves.

Maryland has played to mixed reviews so far, fitting for a team marked by 11 players in their first or second seasons. The Terps expected to be a fast-breaking squad with good size, great athletes and the ability to impose their will with pressure defense that creates instant offense in spurts.

That has been the case. Maryland asserted its talent in victories over American, George Mason and Hofstra, yet did not look too impressive against the last two obstacles. And Maryland needs to close some holes in its game soon. After Wisconsin comes No. 17 Gonzaga on Saturday in the opening round of the BB&T Classic at MCI Center. In eight days, Maryland gets its first true road test at No. 2 Florida.

"We have to go through adversity to grow, and you don't allow yourself to feel happy about a win after the way we played [on Saturday]," Terps sophomore forward Nik Caner-Medley said. "The No. 1 thing we need to improve on is playing 40 minutes of 100 percent good basketball. Wisconsin is obviously a better team [than Hofstra]. In order to beat a better team, we have to play better."

After overwhelming American by scoring 47 of the game's first 55 points, the Terps had to labor to take a pair of 15-point decisions. Maryland came from behind in the second half to beat George Mason, then slogged through a night of poor shooting and defensive breakdowns before putting away Hofstra.

The Terps hope the ball starts going in the basket with more frequency. Maryland's start has been marred by scoring droughts, evidenced by its 13-for-50 shooting from three-point range (26 percent) and its painful 56 percent showing at the free-throw line. The Terps were 31-for-55 from the line against Hofstra.

Part of Maryland's challenge has been learning to attack zone defenses with patience and smarts. Maryland's shortcomings have ranged from poor ball movement to ill-advised shot selection to a lack of good spacing and dribble penetration. Plus, good shots simply have not fallen. That has limited the Terps' preference for an up-tempo style.

"I definitely think that's the scouting report on us right now. Play them with a zone and slow them down. That's the way to beat Maryland," said sophomore point guard John Gilchrist, who is averaging 10.3 points, 4.7 assists and barely one turnover, but is shooting just 22 percent from beyond the arc.

Maryland coach Gary Williams said he isn't too worried about the missed shots, since the Terps are getting good looks. Some of his best teams have gone through nightmarish stretches at the free-throw line. What concerns Williams is the defensive lapses, even though the Terps are averaging 12 steals, 8.7 blocks and are forcing 22.3 turnovers.

"Steals and blocked shots are nice, but they're talent plays," Williams said. "Look at the team defense, the times you made teams take tough shots. Did you leave people open? We've got to get better at converting out of offense to the defensive end. We've got to talk better, make sure we get switched [covering opposing shooters]. Little things that didn't cost us [on Saturday] will cost us in the future."

Maryland is feeling its way. It is still searching for a consistent finisher down low, where senior center Jamar Smith has three double doubles, but has yet to find his shot or a dependable power move. The same goes for sophomore power forward Travis Garrison, who is shooting 35 percent and has not looked comfortable in the post.

In the backcourt, sophomore guard Chris McCray (9.3 ppg) has sparked at times on defense but has had trouble getting off his shot. Freshman Mike Jones, the heralded shooter, has missed seven of nine three-point attempts.

The revelations in Maryland's developing rotation have been freshman guard D.J. Strawberry and freshman forward Ekene Ibekwe. Strawberry, averaging 18 minutes a game, has been among the Terps' top defenders. Ibekwe, a lean 6 feet 9, has intimidated opponents with his explosive shot-blocking and dunking ability.

Wisconsin (3-0), conference champion the past two seasons, promises a tough test as part of the fifth ACC-Big Ten Challenge. The Badgers, led by point guard and preseason Player of the Year Devin Harris, rely on stiff, man-to-man defense and a deliberate offense that sets endless screens, takes excellent care of the ball and milks the shot clock.

The Badgers prefer to keep games in the 60s. They also are shooting the ball with Maryland-like inefficiency. Wisconsin has made 38.1 percent of its shots, including just nine of 51 (17.6 percent) from long range.

Even though the ACC is 11-3 on its home court in ACC-Big Ten Challenge play, Williams expects nothing to come easy.

"Wisconsin is a smart team. They get you if you break down [on defense]. They know how to find the open guy. You have to be tough enough to play at the defensive end for 25 or 30 seconds," he said. "This is as good a stretch as we'll play."

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