UM aims to build reserve strength

Before ACC play, core of backups would help resolve issues in 7-3 start

January 03, 2004|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - With 11 days and two games against nonconference opponents standing between them and the resumption of their Atlantic Coast Conference schedule, the Maryland Terrapins have no shortage of items on their wish list.

The Terps want to curtail the scoring droughts that have cropped up during their 7-3 start, whether because of poor shooting, sloppy ball-handling, bad shot selection or ignoring the extra pass.

They want to string together something close to 40 minutes of maximum effort, which they most recently failed to do while falling behind by 14 points early in Sunday's loss at Florida State in their conference opener. They are dying to get out of the league's free-throw shooting cellar.

And while they are fixing those problems, the Terps need to develop some more depend- able performers on their bench. With the two-month ACC grind staring at them, the youngest team in the league is hungry for more depth.

Ten games into the season, Maryland is essentially a seven-man team, with four starters averaging at least 31 minutes of playing time. Freshman guard D.J. Strawberry and freshman forward Ekene Ibekwe have become the most consistent backups in support of starters Jamar Smith - the lone senior - and sophomores John Gilchrist, Nik Caner-Medley, Chris McCray and Travis Garrison.

In recent years, which have included back-to-back Final Four trips and the only NCAA title in school history, the Terps have been marked by a rotation consisting of eight, nine or 10 players. Depth is usually tied to survival and excellence, particularly late in the season, and Maryland needs more of it.

"With freshmen, it really is tough to find your rotation. It really is tough to get a feel for what's working. There are sophomores out there starting, and I'm not sure how good they are yet," Maryland coach Gary Williams said.

"With freshmen, I think you'll be searching [for a steady rotation]. You get spoiled. The last four or five years, you knew who was going to play [before the season started]. There's nobody here [among the freshmen] like a Joe Smith, when you can just write his name in the lineup."

Ideally, Williams would like to develop a comfort level with some combination of guard Mike Jones and centers Will Bowers and Hassan Fofana, each of whom has barely played so far.

Jones has been the biggest surprise. The 6-foot-5 McDonald's All-American, who came to College Park with the kind of quickness, leaping ability and jump shot that made him a consensus top 20 recruit among shooting guards, has struggled while adapting to Division I.

Adjusting to his role in Maryland's flex offense, which requires well-timed cuts and lots of movement, has been a problem. So has guarding opponents. And his shot has not fallen.

"Things are a lot quicker than they were in high school," said Jones, who is averaging 3.4 points and 7.9 minutes, and is shooting just 37.5 percent. He did not play in Maryland's overtime victories over then-No. 1 Florida or then-No. 15 Wisconsin, and has exceeded five minutes of playing time in four games.

"I'm not used to the large crowds, and I tend to get nervous at times," Jones added. "The more I play, the more comfortable I'll get out there on the court. Coach is still feeling things out. Everything starts in practice."

Williams said Jones has become more active as a defender and rebounder in practice.

"[Jones] used to take about five 20-footers to get ready for practice. He's had to learn [there is more preparation involved]," Williams said. "Mike knows the deal. He's been real positive. He knows he can be a good college player."

Some marked growth in Fofana or Bowers would help the Terps. Fofana, 6-10, is a 280-pound player from West Africa who has played more soccer than basketball. Bowers, 7-1, has shown a decent shooting touch at times but is still adapting to the physical style of post play that will only get nastier in the ACC.

Neither player has made a consistent dent in the rotation. Bowers went five games earlier in the year without playing more than one minute. He is averaging 0.8 points, 1.3 rebounds and 6.3 minutes. Fofana's playing time has dropped significantly in the past month. He has not played in two of the past four games and is averaging 0.6 of a point, 1.0 rebound and 6.3 minutes.

"Will has had his moments, just like Ekene," Williams said. "Hassan has done some things that are really good, but he's not consistent yet. He's struggled at times with the offense and the things he has to do."

Maryland got a reminder of its lack of depth Sunday, when the Florida State bench outscored the Terps backups, 35-13, sparking a 79-75 victory by the Seminoles.

Williams acknowledged that the Terps need to fatten their rotation, partly to preserve their legs as the season starts to grind onward with two or three conference games per week.

Taking control of visiting Mount St. Mary's (2-8) quickly today would help. That would allow Williams to dig deeper into his bench on the early side, something the Terps were not able to do while plowing through tough, nonconference wins against the likes of George Mason and Hofstra.

"I think we're going to need a little more depth coming into ACC play," Smith said. "There's not going to be any more easy teams to play. We're going to need more people to give us minutes."

Terps today

Matchup: Mount St. Mary's (2-8) vs. Maryland (7-3)

Site: Comcast Center, College Park

Time: 2 p.m.

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

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