For UM big men, a tall order

College basketball: At Maryland, playing a post position means having to master countless assignments, not to mention having a huge stake in the Terps' fortunes.

February 08, 2004|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - The first thing Hassan Fofana had to do was lose some weight, to help him keep up with the rapid pace of the game. The first thing Will Bowers had to do was hit the weights, to give him added strength he would need to survive the nasty contact he would face.

The crash courses for Maryland's freshman centers are in full swing. There is no shortage of exercises to perform under the tutelage of coach Gary Williams and assistants Dave Dickerson and Jimmy Patsos.

Bowers, a 7-foot-1, 245-pound prospect out of Archbishop Spalding, shook his head at all that is expected of the big men in Maryland's flex offense, an attack based on free-flowing motion, timed cuts and constant reading of the opposing defense's moves. The scheme calls for each of its players to rotate to positions all over the floor as plays unfold, and it is predicated on getting the ball inside first.

Bowers and Fofana have a lot to master: Run the floor fast enough to get into good position on the block, catch the ball, decide quickly whether to try a power move with back to the basket, use a drop step to create space for a hook or a jump shot, turn and face the hoop for a jumper if the defense provides enough space. Or pass to an open shooter on the perimeter or to a teammate cutting to the basket, especially after drawing a double team of defenders.

Williams also demands that his big men develop solid ball-handling skills, since they often receive passes after moving to the perimeter. There, they can choose between swinging the ball along the perimeter, finding an open cutter or a teammate in a post-up position, dribbling into the defense to break it down or taking an open shot.

Oh, and on defense, get behind your man on the block, keep your feet moving as the ball moves around the court in front of you to maintain good position, and deny the ball inside while not reaching and over-playing, which will allow an easier angle for receiving the ball and scoring. And, do not abandon your spot too soon to stop the ball-handler who has driven into the lane, since that will leave your man too open to catch a pass and score easily down low.

Got all that, Will and Hassan?

"There's so much stuff to think about. In high school, we ran a lot of plays, but it's not even close to what we're running here," Bowers said. "You have to think about where you're supposed to be, and you have to read plays before they happen. Then you have to make quick decisions, the right decisions. In time, it's something I'll be able to master."

"It's definitely not easy, and this is the ACC. They play rough here. They beat on you," said Fofana, a 6-10, 275-pound native of Guinea, who has lost 15 pounds since last fall and added noticeable tone to his body during only his fourth organized season of basketball.

"You need to have a lot of energy left for the end of the game. You need to be able to get into the right position, and you need to be tough to play inside. A lot of big names have come out of here, so you have to work harder to keep that going. This school is big. They have history."

Over the past decade, during which the Terps have won their only national championship while going to 10 consecutive NCAA tournaments, the big men have had a huge stake in Maryland's fortunes.

Smith at front of line

The list begins with Joe Smith, the dazzling talent who became the No. 1 NBA draft pick in 1995 after leading the Terps to the Sweet 16 in his only two years at Maryland and starting the current NCAA tournament streak. Smith remains the standard by which the Terps' post players have been measured since his departure in '95.

From Smith, the line includes a former project named Obinna Ekezie, who came out of recruiting obscurity and is still getting paid in the NBA by the Atlanta Hawks. It extends to 7-foot Mike Mardesich, a solid former backup who is playing professionally in Germany, and to 6-10 Tahj Holden, who countered his lack of interior scoring ability with unusually good outside shooting and passing skills. Holden is playing in Turkey.

And of course, there is 6-7 Lonny Baxter, who brought his rugged, low-post game from the streets of Southeast Washington and teamed with guard Juan Dixon to carry the Terps to glory in 2002. Baxter, a two-time regional Most Valuable Player in NCAA tournament play, is playing for the Toronto Raptors in his second NBA season.

With the exception of Smith, who joined the Terps with remarkable skills and quickness and was the national Player of the Year as a sophomore, Maryland's low-post players have been more protracted works in progress. And they all brought something different to the table, which the Maryland offense is designed to accommodate.

"The big guys are going to be on the inside, but if the offense is run right, they're going to be on the perimeter, also," said Dickerson, who, along with Patsos, works mainly with the post players.

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