Lack of a post presence keeps Terps off balance

February 12, 2005|By JOHN EISENBERG

DUKE COMES to Comcast Center tonight, and as always with the Maryland Terrapins this season, what's going to happen is anyone's guess.

It wouldn't be surprising if the Terps experienced their fifth double-digit loss in 22 games - Duke is a tough opponent, ranked No. 7.

But it also wouldn't be surprising if the Terps won - they beat the Blue Devils 17 days ago in Durham, N.C.

The unpredictable Terps are confounding Garyland with their performances ranging from brilliant to brutal. It's almost as if two teams are suiting up - the Good Terps, whose quick hands and slashing drives bewilder opponents, and the Bad Terps, whose listless play suggests they awoke from a nap moments before tip-off.

It seldom takes more than a few minutes of the first half to discern which has shown up, and while the Terps' 14-7 record indicates the Good Terps materialize more often, coach Gary Williams surely expected more from a team that returned all but one contributor from last season's Atlantic Coast Conference tournament champions.

A .500 record in their remaining six regular-season games probably would lock up an NCAA tournament bid, and given their ratio of good performances to clunkers, the Terps can handle that. It doesn't hurt that four of the six games are against teams even with or below the Terps in the ACC standings.

But they were supposed to be angling for a higher NCAA seeding in February, not worrying about even making it to March Madness.

What has caused the up-and-down season? Some believe it's the philosophical dispute between Williams and John Gilchrist over whether a point guard should score or distribute. (Let him score, Gary.) Some believe it's the injuries to D.J. Strawberry and Ekene Ibekwe. Some believe it's the absence of pure jump shooters other than Nik Caner-Medley.

All are part of the equation, as is the overall high quality of the ACC, which maximizes the impact of anyone's weaknesses, especially on the road.

When even the worst teams in a league are capable of pounding you on their home court (see: Clemson 88, Maryland 73), the message is clear: If you're anything less than a top 10 team, the best you should expect is around .500 in league play.

But of all the reasons for the Terps' inconsistency, the most important is among the least-discussed - their lack of an inside game.

In a sport that demands inside-outside balance, the Terps live on the perimeter. Too many of their baskets come from 15 to 20 feet away.

Take away reserve Will Bowers, a 7-foot sophomore, and this is a team without a pure power center. Ibekwe, who has started 16 games in the post, is a natural forward who prefers to face the basket. Travis Garrison, the team's top rebounder, is a forward who prefers to shoot jumpers. James Gist, a freshman who started the last game in the middle, also is a natural forward.

Jamar Smith, who started at center as a senior last season, actually was also a forward, but at least he resembled a center on some nights, bulling his way around the post and making his presence known.

This season's center rotation is younger, thinner and not as formidable. It's a problem because opponents can forsake the middle defensively and play more aggressively at 15 to 20 feet, leaving the Terps' jump shooters with few open shots. It's also a problem when opponents attack the Terps inside.

Bowers is the obvious antidote, and he is playing increasingly well in a limited role; it wasn't a coincidence that the Terps upset Duke on a night he started, played 23 minutes and had four points, seven rebounds and two blocks. The Terps had inside-outside balance that night.

Given Williams' history of turning raw big men into contributors (Lonny Baxter, Obinna Ekezie and Tony Massenburg, among others), Bowers could be ready for a major role next season. That would give the Terps their first power center since Baxter.

But with Bowers still a project under construction this season, the Terps just have to live with their hole in the middle.

It's especially tough on them because the ball always goes inside in Williams' half-court offense, and good things are supposed to happen in there. Why do you think the offense was so effective for Williams' Final Four teams? Juan Dixon was scoring from the outside, but so was Baxter from the post.

The current Terps have the wherewithal to overcome their imbalance at times, as last season's ACC tournament run and last month's win at Duke indicate.

They could put on another of those performances tonight and complete a home-and-home sweep of the Blue Devils. Or they could lose in a blowout. With these Terps, the range of possibilities is limitless.

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