Terps' Agenda:

Play As A Team

Chemistry issues dogged UM from the start

team enters offseason with changes in mind

College Basketball

March 31, 2005|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,SUN STAFF

There were signs early that foretold one of the most disappointing seasons in Gary Williams' 16 years as Maryland basketball coach.

The Terrapins' offense and outside shooting disappeared in front of a hostile crowd at Wisconsin. Against George Washington later that week, the Terps didn't defend. And in its Atlantic Coast Conference road opener against North Carolina, Maryland didn't do much of anything and was blasted by 34 points.

Those three games revealed a flawed Maryland team, which fought inconsistency, seeming indifference at times, and chemistry problems, according to at least one Terp, all the way up to Tuesday night's season finale - a 75-67 loss to South Carolina in the National Invitation Tournament semifinals at New York's Madison Square Garden.

When one of Maryland's most important offseasons began late Tuesday night, the general consensus in the Terps' locker room was that things need to change. And according to sophomore post player Ekene Ibekwe, it all starts with the Terps learning to get along.

"If we do what we need to do off the court, then on the court, we'll take care of business," Ibekwe said. "We have some guys on this team that really, really don't think they are playing to their potential.

"It's about time that we put our heads together, team up and start playing together. We need to do away with all this little personal [garbage]. This team needs to stick together and go out as a team and win. If we take care of being together and just cooperate, then we'll be all right."

Asked if he thought that the Terps weren't all on the same page this season, Ibekwe said, "Yeah, I thought that, but a lot of teams think that."

Throughout their 19-13 season, the Terps denied that they were a team of factions and downplayed chemistry issues even as Williams' displeasure with the play of point guard John Gilchrist went public after the two exchanged words in front of the Terps' bench at Wake Forest on Jan. 11. However, like Ibekwe, junior guard Chris McCray sounded like a player who believed that not everyone on the Terps had the same agenda.

"We need to come in focused and just whatever Coach says, just do it right off the top," said McCray, a team captain. "Don't talk back, don't do [anything]. Just do it."

Williams said: "I know one thing: We can get tighter as a team. That's how you win big games - you rely on each other. ... A lot of that is in the offseason, when players look to each other for how hard you work. You have to push each other."

The Terps failed to make the NCAA tournament for the first time in 12 years and came up short of the 20-win plateau for the first time in nine. They were 7-9 in the ACC, but there was no run to the ACC tournament title this year to salvage an inconsistent regular season that included a 2-0 mark over Duke and an 0-5 record against Clemson and North Carolina State.

Maryland's problems on the court were well-documented. Especially after losing emotional leader D.J. Strawberry to a season-ending knee injury in mid-January, the Terps were not a good defensive team, allowing an ACC-worst 76.6 points a game. They didn't shoot well from the perimeter, and nobody from their stable of post players stepped up as a consistent replacement for Jamar Smith.

But one of the most maddening things to Williams was the number of times the Terps were out-hustled and out-muscled. It became almost a refrain for a Maryland player to remark after a loss that the team didn't play hard enough. The Terps' coach thought the precedent was set during the team's preseason trip to Italy, which he felt fostered a relaxed and soft attitude about game competition.

"I want to be a better conditioned team next year," said Williams, who said he'd never take his team overseas for a preseason trip again. "I can't lift the weights for them. We have to be a more physical team."

Despite all the troubles, Williams said he's extremely excited about next season because he liked what he saw for much of the Terps' NIT run. He knows he'll be returning virtually the same parts, and depending on what happens with other league teams, the Terps will boast one of the most experienced rosters in the ACC next season.

Rumors of the departures of Ibekwe, Nik Caner-Medley and Mike Jones are apparently false, as all three have said they'll be returning. Gilchrist, however, almost definitely will not be back. He has said, at the very least, he will go to NBA pre-draft camps and gauge his status.

The Terps' recruiting class consists only of Shane Clark, a versatile and athletic 6-foot-7 forward from Hargrave Military Academy. However, the Terps have scholarships available and still might be in the running for a couple of recruits, including 6-8 forward Uche Echefu from Montrose Christian in Rockville.

Williams will meet with each of his players, including Gilchrist, over the next five days to talk about the past season as well as expectations for next season. He must hire an assistant to replace Mike Lonergan, who was hired as head coach at Vermont.

Senior associate head coach Dave Dickerson is a finalist for the top job at Tulane, and Williams also will need to find a new strength and conditioning coach because Craig Fitzgerald took a job at Harvard.

Through it all, Williams is hoping the players take it upon themselves to improve.

"I remember coming back from our first Final Four, I was really worried because I didn't know how our team would react to losing," Williams said. "Those guys were in the weight room a week after they got back. We're in a different situation obviously, but we should know we could be a very good basketball team if we get better."

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