Young Terps have found young leader in Vasquez

October 14, 2007|By DAVID STEELE

Greivis Vasquez guarded Kobe Bryant over the summer at the FIBA Americas Olympic qualifying tournament. But you probably knew that already, and it didn't surprise you that the University of Maryland guard, coming off his freshman season, went chest to chest with possibly the best player on the planet.

Vasquez also faced off last summer with the video of his Terps' NCAA tournament loss to Butler in March. You might not have known that. But all his coaches and teammates knew it. And for Vasquez, that might have been tougher than checking Kobe.

"I looked at it," he said last week, on the day before practice for this season officially began, "[and] I played the game for all the freshmen so they could see it."

That's right. Maryland Madness was still a day away, yet Vasquez already had been mad for seven months.

"Freshmen have to understand how it is on the court and outside the court," he continued. "If we do good outside the court and on the court, everything will be good. That's my main goal [this season], to sacrifice and play really hard, because I never want anything like that to happen again."

This is a good thing, carrying around the pain of that 62-59 second-round defeat in Buffalo, N.Y. It's also good that the challenge of pushing, or pulling, the Terps further into the tournament, into territory they once routinely ventured into, is being taken on by one of the young guys, albeit one of the most extroverted, expressive ones you will ever come across.

This edition of the Terps has almost nothing but young guys: six incoming freshmen, a redshirt freshman and three sophomores, including Vasquez and Eric Hayes, who are now locked in as the starting backcourt.

One player, however, acts less like a young guy than the others. Vasquez grew up as a freshman, played beyond his years, and was often more steady as a player and an influence in the locker room than the upperclassmen.

He is continuing as that influence, to the pleasure of coach Gary Williams and the benefit of the other players. Vasquez acknowledges that yes, he grew as a player with all the international experience he had with the Venezuelan national team, which toured the world and played in Las Vegas against the United States, Spain and other world powers packed with NBA talent.

But in many ways, he had shown he already was grown before he ever left American soil in the offseason. He couldn't take watching the rest of the NCAA tournament, he said, but when he returned to campus, between the loss to Butler and his departure with the national team, he made a point of going to the locker room and going back over the game.

"It was tough to go out there and do the right thing. We didn't do the right things at the end," Vasquez said. "To me, we were a way better team than they were at the time, and we didn't play well. We had a chance to at least play [eventual champion] Florida and see what happened.

"It's still in my heart. Losing that game - people don't understand, the reason I play the game is because I love the game, and I think everyone else should love it, too. That was really painful for me."

The freshmen feel his pain. Guard Adrian Bowie was a year behind Vasquez at Montrose Christian and said his teammate sought out the newcomers individually to make his point. "It was really good for him to do that, telling me what I needed to do and how hard I had to work," Bowie said.

And Vasquez's coach feels his pain. Williams chewed on the Butler loss all summer, too, and said last week that he believes the players "might have relaxed" after winning seven in a row to close the regular season. Vasquez was part of the group, but he also was one of the players - along with seniors D.J. Strawberry and Ekene Ibekwe - who were inconsolable in the locker room after blowing multiple chances to defeat Butler.

"I know exactly what he was doing," Williams said of Vasquez's quest to educate the youngsters. "I know the type of player he is. He doesn't accept that loss."

In putting himself out there this way, Vasquez is serving as an important bridge between the relative skid of the past three seasons - the two National Invitation Tournament trips and the brief NCAA stay - and a return to the Sweet 16. Before Vasquez and the new wave came a pair of classes that will always be viewed as underachievers, from the John Gilchrist/Chris McCray/Nik Caner-Medley group to last season's seniors.

Vasquez will do whatever it takes to avoid the feeling the seniors had in Buffalo when his senior year comes. Yes, he said, you never know whether the right time to jump to the NBA will come before he finishes four years.

"But right now, I'm here," he said, "and I don't want to waste a thing."

It's a message that hasn't been sent often enough in this program lately.

david.steele@baltsun.com

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