UM seniors aim for a rebound

Beginning with tonight's opener, group hopes to forget last season


COLLEGE PARK -- They were treated "like rock stars," Maryland coach Gary Williams said, freshman basketball players who arrived on campus and basked in the afterglow of a national championship they didn't win.

Now, four years later, Nik Caner-Medley, Chris McCray and Travis Garrison are trying to earn one of their own. Tonight's 8 p.m. season opener against Fairleigh Dickinson marks the beginning of the last chance for the seniors, a group that has experienced everything from an Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship to what they considered a disappointing finish in the National Invitation Tournament last season.

Williams said he senses this team thinks it has something to prove after last year's 7-9 finish in the ACC.

"That's the most criticism any team of mine has had here probably ever, last year," Williams said. "I think a lot of it wasn't their fault, and yet they took the heat on it. This is their chance. I've always felt that when you have a group of seniors like this, they're going to be able to create their own identity."

Garrison, who has been limited this week by back spasms, said Maryland's appearance in the NIT last season was "one of the low moments" of his college career. This season's team, he said, will be defined by how it chooses to respond to that finish.

"Are we going to play hard and prove to ourselves we can be a good team, or are we going to fall back and say a lot of people are not expecting a lot out of us?" Garrison said. "I think we're going to be one of those teams that goes through adversity and be a very good team throughout the whole season."

Maryland will find out a lot about itself between tonight and Thanksgiving, as the team will fly to Hawaii early tomorrow morning for the Maui Invitational, a three-day tournament that has been billed by many as having the top eight-team field in the country. The Terps face Gonzaga on Monday in the opening round, but they haven't watched any film of the Bulldogs yet.

Players said they're more concerned right now about the season opener.

"Now that this is actually going to be on our record, it's a little more serious to us in a sense, but every game we play counts," said junior guard Mike Jones. "Everybody is excited about going to Maui, but at the same time, we can't get there without [today]."

The Knights have three starters - including their leading scorer and rebounder - back from a team that pushed top-seeded Illinois in last year's NCAA tournament before losing, 67-55.

Fairleigh Dickinson won the Northeast Conference tournament championship and earned the program's first trip to the NCAA tournament since 1998.

"A lot of teams start off with some schools you never heard of and usually beat them by 30 or 40, but Fairleigh Dickinson is not that kind of team," Caner-Medley said. " ... We know we're going to have to come out and play well."

Caner-Medley and his fellow senior teammates - with the exception of transfer Sterling Ledbetter, who joined the team last season - have been to the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16. A year later they found out what it felt like to win the ACC championship. And they've already experienced the postseason publicity after Maryland's 2002 national championship - something Williams said was "good and it was bad."

"They certainly have been through different types of seasons," Williams said. "I'm looking forward to seeing if our seniors can provide the leadership I think they can provide."

Caner-Medley said the seniors, over the past few seasons, have been held responsible "for a lot of things that happened with the team."

"Being as we're seniors, it's our last year. We want to have a great year," he said. "The last couple of years, we've all felt like we've had a large part of the responsibility on our shoulders."

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