COLLEGE PARK — — In a season in which a young Maryland men's basketball team has trudged through its early nonconference schedule with a lineup full of uncertainty, change was inevitable.
When coach Gary Williams removed senior guard Cliff Tucker from the starting lineup in favor of freshman Pe'Shon Howard prior to last Wednesday's victory over New Jersey Institute of Technology, it marked the first time this season the coach strayed from his usual starting five.
With Tucker struggling in the team's previous five games, the time was right for a move, Williams figured, and it paid dividends. Tucker sparked the team coming off the bench with 11 points and Howard's role as point guard took the pressure off senior guard Adrian Bowie, who added 13 points.
Williams expects to use that same starting lineup when the Terps (8-4) face North Florida tonight Comcast Center in the team's second-to-last contest before opening the bulk of its Atlantic Coast Conference scheudle on Jan. 9 at Duke.
"I wouldn't say we're locked in like we are some years to a starting lineup," Williams said. "I think we can make some changes, and that doesn't mean anyone's upset with any players. It's just that at that particular time people were playing better with that certain combination."
While Howard brings a hardnosed energy to the lineup, Tucker's ability to find the net is something the Terps are still counting on. Tucker remains the team's second-leading scorer, averaging just under 11 points per game, and the ability to bring an experienced, natural shooter off the bench is something the team is likely to need in the coming weeks.
Sophomore center Jordan Williams has emerged as Maryland's most consistent player, averaging 18.2 points and posting double doubles in six straight games, which is one shy of the school record set by Joe Smith in 1995.
Although Tucker's recent stretch isn't exactly what the team had envisioned from the senior guard entering the year, he's still an important piece in Maryland's youthful puzzle.
"Cliff's an extremely good player, so coming off the bench or starting, he's going to give us something we need, that spark we need," said senior forward Dino Gregory (Mount St. Joseph). "Coming off the bench actually helps him more. He plays a lot better. He plays a lot smarter. It's a good thing for the team. It's a good change."
Bowie is the other beneficiary of the switch, as he has moved to a more natural role as the team's second guard. While last week's game was the first time this season Bowie did not register an assist, Williams noted that the senior looked more calm in his role, gaining looks to the basket that he might not have otherwise received.
While much has been made of Maryland's lineup flux this week, what matters to Gary Williams is which players are on the floor to finish games, not necessarily who is out there to start them.
"If you watch as the game goes on, you'll see who's playing really well by who's on the court," the coach said. "You may not have your starting team out there, you'll have the five that are playing the best that particular night. You play towards that position. You want to be out there when it counts."