As season grows old, UM has yet to grow up

February 19, 2004|By MIKE PRESTON

COLLEGE PARK - You might Fear The Turtle if it kept its head out of its shell.

Right now, no one knows what to expect from the Maryland men's basketball team as it heads down the stretch of its Atlantic Coast Conference schedule. On a good night, when the Terps are playing great defense, making key shots and hitting free throws, they can beat any team in the country.

On a bad night, when Maryland is 0-for-God-awful during a 12-minute scoring drought, or has more clunkers from the foul line than a rural junkyard, the Terps could struggle against good mid-major conference teams.

Sometimes, watching Maryland play can be hazardous to your health. Certainly, the Terps are hard on the eyes. But as tonight's game against Georgia Tech at Comcast Center and Sunday's date in Durham, N.C., against Duke approach, the Terps had better grow up in a hurry.

They've got to come out of that shell.

"They have nobody, no one in terms of a peer to lead them," said Maryland coach Gary Williams. "They have to do it themselves. We don't have that four-year player that just grabs the team and says this is what we've got to do. It has to come from within, from coaches and players."

We all know Maryland (13-8 overall, 4-6 ACC) is a young team, starting four sophomores. That was a great excuse in November, and maybe you can stretch it a little into December. But it's now February, 21 games into the season. It doesn't wash anymore.

A lot of teams have young players. It's the nature of college basketball. Syracuse won a national championship last year with two freshmen and two sophomores in its starting lineup. Williams doesn't have that kind of talent, but whose fault is that?

It's his style to go after certain players, not necessarily the blue-chippers. If you look at the Maryland roster, there is no Carmelo Anthony or LeBron James. The only Maryland player close to NBA caliber is sophomore point guard John Gilchrist.

It's a team full of limited role players. That's why it is hard to see the Terps doing any serious damage if they make the NCAA tournament. They could be one and done. This isn't as much about maturity as it is about Williams finding the right pieces and building for a team to make a serious run in another year or two.

It's a work in progress, including Williams being able to reach his team's soul. They know each other, but the connection isn't there yet. Sunday against North Carolina, the Terps were down 20 at halftime before losing, 97-86, in a valiant comeback attempt.

After the game, several players talked about being flat.

Excuse me, but how can that happen?

How can a team come out flat playing at the Dean Dome with jerseys from Michael Jordan, Phil Ford and Walter Davis, as well as all those championship banners, hanging from the rafters? Didn't the Terps know the Tar Heels were in the same position as the Terps, fighting for their postseason lives?

The finger gets pointed directly at Williams because his team wasn't ready.

But that's not of major concern, not at this point of rebuilding. The Terps have a lot of other deficiencies, most notably the absence of a bona fide scoring threat at shooting guard, where Maryland had Juan Dixon and Drew Nicholas the past two seasons. Starter Chris McCray is averaging just 10.1 points, fourth on the team.

McCray plays good defense, but his offense is not enough. He is lacking in his ability to be creative and get off shots. Freshman Mike Jones can score points from the position. He has the nice-looking jump shot, the soft touch, the quick acceleration and that exciting rise to the basket, but he also has defensive lapses.

That leaves Williams in a dilemma: Do you trade good offense for good defense? Williams has said no.

Center Jamar Smith has solid numbers (13.6 average, 9.6 rebounds per game), but virtually no physical presence in the middle offensively or defensively.

Small forward Nik Caner-Medley plays hard but can only dribble to his left and shoot with his left hand. He is not athletic enough to play defense against some of the better players at his position in the league like N.C. State's Julius Hodge or North Carolina's Rashad McCants.

So, then, what does Maryland have going for it?

The defense has been excellent, and the Terps have blue-collar grit. Gilchrist has played well, and Jones and freshman forwards Ekene Ibekwe and Hassan Fofana have continued to improve.

But Maryland faces an uphill battle. The Terps are what they are, a team shooting 44.4 percent from the field and 61.2 percent from the foul line. The Ravens had more offense last season. To compensate, Maryland is going to have to grow up ahead of schedule, and try putting all the pieces together.

Williams has to stop the coddling. He has tried to cut down the pressure by cutting short interview time after tough losses, and not bringing out his players for interviews on days before big games.

The Terps themselves need to cut down on the whining, the long facial expressions and the short tantrums after calls don't go their way. Put the Pampers away, fellas.

It's time to be accountable. Try to become overachievers. The second half of the ACC season has begun. Crunch time has arrived.

"Now we have to step it up and see where we are," Williams said. "We'll find out [tonight]."

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