Pulling together to push forward

Torn apart by individualism, Terps now stress unity

Maryland

November 18, 2005|By HEATHER A. DINICH | HEATHER A. DINICH,SUN REPORTER

College Park -- Their desire for unity was evident the moment the Maryland men's basketball team stepped onto the court at Comcast Center for its first official practice.

Instead of one person stealing the spotlight at Maryland Madness on Oct. 14, the players and coach Gary Williams walked in together and were introduced as a team. In the previous two seasons, Williams said, there had been too much individuality.

"Our theme tonight is team," he said last month.

It could very well be the Terps' theme for the season.

There is no go-to player on Maryland's veteran roster, but the players say that's their biggest asset as they look to return to the NCAA tournament. The lack of a superstar or anyone trying to be one has improved team chemistry - an intangible that might have contributed to the Terps missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1992-93.

"We don't have that star on the team, that's what it is," senior guard Chris McCray said. "We've got 12 guys on the team just ready to play basketball and win as many games as we can.

"Nobody's been looking to go out there and score 40 points or go out there and shine over everybody else," he said. "It's been a team atmosphere this year, and it's a great feeling."

There are six juniors and four seniors on this year's roster, all of whom are intent on surpassing last year's 19-win mark and sixth-place finish in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Terps' season ended with a loss to South Carolina in the NIT semifinal, a disappointing run for a program two years removed from the NCAA Sweet 16.

"We don't want to go through what we went through last year," said senior forward Travis Garrison. "We don't want to be put in that position again. It's my senior year, and also Nik [Caner-Medley], Chris and Sterling's [Ledbetter]. We want to leave here with another ring, and we also want to leave here with memorable moments instead of saying, `Oh, we didn't do as good as we wanted to do.'"

Maryland's entire frontcourt returns, including Caner-Medley and Garrison, who led last year's team in scoring and rebounding, respectively. The most notable change in the roster has been the return of junior D.J. Strawberry, who, after missing the final 18 games of last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, has been the front-runner to replace John Gilchrist at point guard.

Gilchrist is the only player not with the team this season who averaged double digits in scoring last year. Gilchrist publicly criticized his former teammates after he left school a year early with the hopes of being selected in the NBA draft. He was not chosen, and is now playing for an Israeli professional team.

Meanwhile, Strawberry said he loves his new role. In the Terps' two exhibition games this season, he totaled 12 assists and eight steals, though he did have eight turnovers.

"I don't need to score a lot of points," Strawberry said. "As long as we win, as long as I get my teammates the ball and run the offense like Coach wants me to do, I'm happy with doing that."

Five players scored in double figures in the Nov. 5 exhibition game against St. Francis Xavier, a 90-59 victory. More than half of the Terps' points (48) were from players coming off the bench.

Mike Jones, who did not start either exhibition, scored a team-high 19 points against St. Francis Xavier, 17 in the first half. In the final exhibition game, an 89-59 win last Friday against Virginia Union, he finished with 13 points.

While the team's defense remains a work in progress, Caner-Medley said the least of Maryland's worries will be where the offense comes from.

"We're not the type of team where we have a couple role players who are trying to get the ball to one guy," said Caner-Medley, who led the team with 16 points a game last year. "That's not the case with this team, and it's a strength for us. It's something we have that a lot of teams don't have.

"We even have guys coming off the bench who could be considered a go-to player on another team," he said. "That's something we have to use to our advantage."

Against Virginia Union, it was sophomore center James Gist who made headlines. In only the fourth start of his collegiate career, Gist had 17 points and 10 rebounds. He also blocked three shots.

"Someone might step out this year and show the ability to be a go-to guy," Williams said. "Each year you create your own identity with your team, what you are. That's what we're trying to do this year."

The Terps were picked by the media to finish fifth in the ACC this season. They have loftier goals, like winning it.

"We've become closer as a team," Gist said. "Last year, I don't think that was there. Everybody wanted to win, but I don't think they wanted it hard enough. This year, that's our main motive. We're all one this year.

"I'm not sure why that's different, but we don't want it to be like last year," Gist said. "We want to make it to the NCAA tournament. ... With that salty taste in our mouth from last year, we don't want to feel that again."

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