Strawberry, Jones try to fit into roles that weren't exactly tailor-made

December 12, 2005|By RICK MAESE

COLLEGE PARK — COLLEGE PARK-- --The students had stormed the court and the blur of emotion bounced in unison at midcourt of the Comcast Center. Back in the locker room, the Maryland Terps' two most exciting players sat side by side.

It's a study of contrast. Two players assigned to roles they didn't necessarily foresee when they signed those scholarship papers. One thriving, one still learning.

Mike Jones is the sixth man, a spot he's too good for. D.J. Strawberry is running the point, a position he's breaking his back to bend into.

Last night's 73-71 upset over No. 6 Boston College was the team's biggest thus far. While it illustrated the Terps' intensity and passion on the court, it also highlighted the biggest hole in the lineup.

Strawberry is a 6-foot-5 junior who has played forward his entire life. He's athletic, talented and can be a true playmaker. But he's playing out of position.

With fewer than five minutes on the clock last night, Strawberry hit a free throw to give the Terps a 63-62 lead - which they would hold the rest of the night. Less than a minute later, his breakaway layup made it 65-62.

Then on the Eagles' inbounds play, Strawberry stole the ball. On the Terps' ensuing possession, he went up for a jumper, changing his mind in mid-air. He tried to pass, but there was no one around him and the ball bounced into the seats.

It was all quintessential Strawberry, a player who can make a good play, but not always a good decision.

"He's just got to calm down a little bit," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "That's the one thing I really like ... about D.J. You don't have to fire him up. It's easier to pull a guy back a little bit than it is to pump him up."

Strawberry finished last night with four points, four assists and three turnovers. He's tied for the Atlantic Coast Conference lead in turnovers.

His shortcomings seemed more pronounced last night because Boston College had a couple of guys born to play point guard, players who I suspect whipped a no-look pass to the doctor in the delivery room. I swear I saw one of them - freshman Tyrese Rice - make a pass under the hoop while winking at some coed seated in the student section.

Strawberry gets flustered. When he picks up his dribble, I feel like I'm watching a ninth-grader getting ready to ask out the captain of the cheerleading squad.

One locker over is Mike Jones.

Who?

Mike Jones.

I don't know if you get the reference, but it's what the Maryland students chant whenever Jones' name is announced over the speakers. It's stolen from a rapper named Mike Jones who infectiously litters his lyrics with the line: "Mike Jones. Who? Mike Jones."

It's fitting for the Terps' Jones, a player who is thriving on the anonymity offered by the bench.

He was the Terps' leading scorer in their season opener against Fairleigh Dickinson (22 points in just 24 minutes). Last night he finished with nine points in 16 minutes. The spark he provides when he comes in the game will serve the Terps well when ACC play really heats up next month.

Midway through the second half against the Eagles, Maryland had lost the lead it had enjoyed most of the night. Jones hit a jumper to tie the game at 51. Then he drilled a three-pointer to give the Terps a 54-53 advantage, followed by a breakaway dunk one minute later that made it 58-55.

By now, "Who?" is a rhetorical question around College Park. They know Jones. Many think the 6-foot-5 junior should be starting. The truth is, though, he is perfect in this sixth-man role, and Williams doesn't have an opening in his starting lineup.

The Terps don't have much flexibility with the lineup. (You can thank John Gilchrist.) They're stuck with Strawberry at the point. With Chris McCray, the team's most consistent scorer playing the other guard slot, Jones is relegated to the bench.

It's not all perfect, not exactly like a coach designs. You knew that much when Strawberry was whistled for a foul with only 10 seconds left and his team protecting a four-point lead. On the bench, Williams caught Strawberry's eyes. The coach pointed to his head, as if to scream, "Think!"

Strawberry will think and he'll get better and he'll grow. If this team is going to do well down the stretch, he has no choice.

Every winning team knows about roles. If the Terps can all fill them as well as Jones has, last night's big win might have been just a glimpse of what lies ahead.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

Read Rick Maese's blog at baltimoresun.com/maeseblog

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