Two UM freshmen will do the leading

Ncaa Tournament

March 15, 2007|By DAVID STEELE

Buffalo, N.Y. — Buffalo, N.Y.-- --The two players who will make or break Maryland's fortunes in the NCAA tournament were not among the players in the HSBC Arena interview room yesterday afternoon.

Greivis Vasquez and Eric Hayes, after all, are freshmen, and unless you're Kevin Durant or Greg Oden (and maybe not even then), you wait your turn at the big table at tournament time. The upperclassmen - seniors D.J. Strawberry and Mike Jones and junior James Gist - had the honors.

Back in the locker room, reporters and cameras found Vasquez tucked away in a corner of his locker, and Hayes sitting quietly in a chair in front of his. The pair got at least as much traffic as their elder teammates - understandably, because those upperclassmen are the first to acknowledge that the freshmen are a huge part of what makes them go, and what will keep them going in the NCAAs.

Hayes and Vasquez, though, couldn't have looked less nervous about what lay ahead, about the responsibility they carried on their young shoulders, had they been curled up fast asleep.

"Everybody's been through a first time for something," Vasquez said, then waved a hand toward the crowd gathered around him. "You all were freshmen once."

The two have answered the "first time" question over and over again this season, and shrugged them all off. Had they not, they wouldn't be where they are today, playing Davidson in the first round of the big tournament.

"I'm not afraid, not nervous about it, who we're going to play or where we're going to play or anything like that," Vasquez said. "I'm just ready to play. I'm excited to be here. I made the tournament my freshman year, and who knows what's going to happen next year? So why don't we take a chance and do something else special and come right out ready to play the first game? That's the way I look at it."

Of course, Vasquez and Hayes, and the rest, felt good last week going down to Tampa, Fla., to open the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament against last-place Miami, and look how that turned out. They didn't stand out from their teammates in how poorly they played, but they didn't help, either.

The idea is to not play like freshmen at a time like this. That's simplistic, though; it implies that playing like a freshman is negative. Playing like freshmen was their greatest contribution to the program's turnaround. This time last year, after the second straight trip to the National Invitation Tournament, Vasquez and Hayes were the hope for the future; they're now the spark of the present.

"We're proud of being part of it, helping the team get back to it," Hayes said. "They've worked real hard to get into [the NCAAs] the last couple of years, maybe had a little bad luck here and there. But they did work their way back, and it means a lot that we helped them get back."

Generally, Hayes is the quiet one - extremely quiet, even when not compared with his effervescent classmate. He was again yesterday - yet Vasquez was just as calm. Not so much reserved as relaxed. Again, a good sign that this initial foray into this single-elimination slice of Madness doesn't faze them.

History is in their favor, that of the freshmen and of the program. Assistant coach Keith Booth can relate. In 1993 he showed up from Dunbar High, along with Joe Smith from Norfolk, Va., and they were the catalysts of an NCAA tournament trip (to the Sweet 16, yet) that ended a drought that makes this one look like a blip in time - five seasons, post-probation.

"We came out of high school used to winning," Booth recalled. "We came out from Day One with the attitude that as long as we played hard and put ourselves into it, we could go as far as we wanted to. [Vasquez and Hayes] came in with the same attitude, that they would put in the hard work day in and day out and think that there was nothing we couldn't do. And that attitude rubbed off on everybody else.

"The difference is," Booth added with a grin, "me and Joe didn't control the ball. These guys do."

That's no subtle difference. That's why they will make or break Maryland's fortunes. If they run the show well, like young players who are used to winning, at worst they'll get a likely date with defending national champion Florida in the Sweet 16.

If they run it poorly, like players who are suddenly in over their heads, then the Terps will go home early, possibly to a 13th seed from the Southern Conference, hungry to knock off a big-conference team and armed with an accomplished freshman guard (Stephen Curry) of its own.

Smart freshmen, though, don't underrate their opponents - more than once. "We weren't successful in the [Miami] game because we weren't ready for it, and that's something we learned, a valuable lesson," Vasquez said. "You have to be ready for every game, because if you're not, you're going to go home ."

Hayes and Vasquez aren't ready for that. They haven't even sat at the big table yet.

david.steele@baltsun.com

MORE MARCH MADNESS ONLINE

Paul McMullen reports on March Madness

Heather A. Dinich answers readers' questions about Maryland basketball

Milton Kent reports on the NCAA women's tournament

What the national media are saying about Maryland basketball

Plus archived stories

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