COLLEGE PARK - Don't let the past make you overconfident. Don't let the future distract you from the present.
That's the two-part message Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams is hoping his team has absorbed going into tonight's game against American University at Comcast Center.
It's been 12 days since the Terps last played a game, when they notched an impressive 73-71 victory over then-sixth-ranked Boston College, and now with finals completed, Maryland's Atlantic Coast Conference schedule is just two weeks away. But until then, the Terps (7-2, 1-0 ACC) will try to focus on arguably the weakest part of its schedule: American, Delaware State, VMI and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. Though it's not exactly a daunting list of opponents, for a team coming off a long break, and one that is still working on its consistency, that might not be a bad thing.
"You need games to stay sharp," Williams said. "To be a good team, you have to play at a certain level, with both toughness and intensity. If you can't get to that level to start the game, then you struggle. I'm hoping these guys have shown the last couple weeks that they've done a pretty good job of getting ready to play. Hopefully that will continue."
If nothing else, Maryland's inside game has certainly made some strides in recent weeks, led by the improved play of both Ekene Ibekwe and Travis Garrison. Ibekwe had the best game of his Maryland career against the Eagles, matching his career high in points with 21, while grabbing nine rebounds in 34 minutes. It seemed like a significant leap forward for a player who struggled at times last year to figure out his role in Maryland's offense.
"I know I've been doing good, but there's always a place for improvement," Ibekwe said. "I believe you can never be satisfied with what you've done, because once you are, that's when you stop excelling. ... If I have an open shot, I'm going to take it. If I have a bigger guy on me and I'm on the outside, I'm going to take it to the rack. If I have a smaller guy on me, I'm going to post him up. I just play the game to my advantage."
Garrison's improvement has been more subtle, but just as important. The senior forward was still recovering early on from getting his knee scoped during the offseason, and Williams kept him out of the starting lineup for the Terps' first six games, despite the fact that Garrison had 61 starts prior to this year. But Garrison, who has developed a reputation mostly as a shooter during his career at Maryland, started to muscle his way inside a bit and get some easy baskets, and he regained his coach's confidence. Williams inserted Garrison back in the lineup, and in three starts this year, he's averaged 16.3 points and 9.7 rebounds. He's led the team in rebounding five of the past six games.
"He's much more aggressive," Williams said. "I think now he's very confident, he feels good, and as a senior he knows what he has to do to be successful. He's been our guy going after the glass hard, and he's played more of an inside game this year than he did his previous three years. He's found out that he can get some easy points by hanging around the glass in addition to his obvious ability to shoot the ball. You don't want to be labeled as just a shooter, and I think Travis had that tag going into this year. Now he's changed that a little bit with his aggressive play."
American University - where Williams got his first head coaching job in 1978 - hasn't beaten the Terps since 1927. The Eagles did, however, trail the Terps by just two points at halftime last year before Maryland pulled away for an 82-61 win. American started the year 0-6, but the Eagles have won three-straight games coming into tonight, and they could get an additional boost from Paulius Joneliunas, a 6-foot-11 center who transferred from South Carolina and is eligible to play his first game tonight.
Williams said he always feels a bit nostalgic when he prepares to play American, but all that disappears before the opening tip.
"They gave me the chance to be a head coach," Williams said. "I might never have been a head coach without getting that American job, because there are thousands of assistants out there. I'll always remember that."
American@No. 16 Maryland
Tonight, 8, Comcast SportsNet, 1300 AM, 105.7 FM