Still sunny from Florida, Terps try not to get burned

Pepperdine another test after draining 2-2 stretch

December 14, 2003|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - One month from today, the North Carolina Tar Heels will come to Maryland. With that, the meat of its schedule, the long grind that is Atlantic Coast Conference basketball, will be under way.

Before that, the youthful Maryland Terrapins have much to confront, starting with their recent success and how they will channel it during a period that includes four home games against nonconference schools, sandwiched around a dangerous ACC opener at Florida State in two weeks.

Today's visit to Comcast Center by Pepperdine marks another potential dicey turn in the road for the Terps (5-2), who learned a lesson or two during an emotionally draining 2-2 stretch that featured three ranked opponents and three overtime games over eight days.

Four nights after its stunning, 69-68 overtime road win against top-ranked Florida, which Maryland team will show up tonight? The one that fell behind unranked West Virginia a week ago by 16 points before rallying, then losing by one in overtime? Or the one that ran a crisp offense for the first 25 minutes at Florida, lost a 17-point lead, then recovered from a prolonged offensive drought to defeat the Gators by one?

Maryland coach Gary Williams knows the Terps could just as easily be 6-1 or 3-4 at this point. He knows they still aren't making enough free throws, aren't making enough open shots, need to tidy up their three-point defense and half-court offense and must expand their depth.

He also knows if the Terps let down their guard tonight, they could head into a nine-day, final-exam break on a bad note. This team is not yet good enough to assume victory over most opponents. Or have you forgotten those uncomfortable, 15-point wins over George Mason and Hofstra in College Park?

"This is a game we need to win. We don't want to go into finals with a loss," Williams said. "Pepperdine is pretty good. They seem to raise their game against the best teams on their schedule. They shoot a lot of threes. We'll see how it works."

The Waves (3-4), who are coached by Paul Westphal and play in the West Coast Conference, which is ruled by Gonzaga, are not going to frighten too many people.

But Pepperdine does have a capable cast of shooters led by guards Alex Acker, Shaun Davis and Terrance Johnson and forward Glen McGowan. They average nearly 23 three-point attempts per game, and they nearly pulled off an upset in Stillwater against Oklahoma State two weeks ago.

And Maryland's exhilarating week, which was topped off in Florida by the clutch play of sophomore forward Nik Caner-Medley, the early brilliance of sophomore point guard John Gilchrist, and the coming-out party of freshman guard D.J. Strawberry, who took over calmly at the point after Gilchrist fouled out late in regulation, had its drawbacks.

The Terps are allowing opponents to shoot 41.1 percent from three-point range. They are making only 55.3 percent of their foul shots. Their passing game needs to improve. Maryland has recorded 111 assists and 107 turnovers, not an acceptable ratio for a program that has prided itself on making the extra pass, not a good sign for a team that has bogged down in scoring droughts, especially against zone defenses.

"We have to get more penetration and more kick-outs for open jump shots," said Gilchrist, who split the Florida zone repeatedly with drives to the basket. "Then the defense has to run out hard on the shooters, and you can get into the lane and feed the post."

"We can't keep celebrating that win over Florida," said sophomore Travis Garrison, who hit the winning shot with 18.4 seconds left in overtime after an otherwise scoreless night. "We've just got to keep playing hard. We have to be tough."

The Terps have been plenty tough in the season's early going - both on the boards and with their pressure defense - but they are going to need more legs to survive the long haul. Consider that four of their starters already are averaging at least 32.6 minutes per game, with senior center Jamar Smith leading the pace at 35.3 minutes.

Strawberry has emerged dramatically as the team's sixth man, its defensive specialist, its position-less guard. At Florida, where the Terps suited up without the now-departed Andre Collins, the former backup point guard who is leaving Maryland, Strawberry stepped in to run the offense after playing the point sparingly in practice. He is averaging 19.3 minutes.

From there, freshman forward Ekene Ibekwe (9.9 minutes) has become the Terps' first big man off the bench. But over the next few weeks, Williams wants to fashion the bottom of the Maryland rotation by finding some meaningful work for freshman centers Hassan Fofana and Will Bowers, junior forward Mike Grinnon and freshman guard Mike Jones, each of whom has barely played so far.

"Probably the best thing about the Florida game was we were able to get into some pretty good offensive sets in overtime without John in the game. He can't play 40 minutes a game," Williams said. "We can't keep playing guys like Jamar and Nik for 40 minutes. That has to stop."

Terps today

Matchup: Pepperdine (2-4) vs. Maryland (5-2)

Site: Comcast Center, College Park

Time: 5:30 p.m.

TV/Radio: Comcast SportsNet/WBAL (1090 AM)

Line: Maryland by 13 1/2

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