December 7, 2005
COLLEGE PARK -- Chemistry. Some teams have it. Some don't. Coaches can try to create it, but normally it must develop naturally.
There's no question that Maryland's basketball team lacked chemistry last season. The Terrapins were a disjointed bunch -- rarely on the same page, often out of sync. It's been an entirely different story this season, as the Terps suddenly are looking like a well-oiled machine, with every part operating properly.
It's easy to point to a pair of personnel changes for the dramatic improvement. Point guard John Gilchrist (now playing professionally overseas) departed the program and was replaced as the team's floor leader by D.J. Strawberry.
Teammates now freely suggest that Gilchrist had adopted a me-first attitude last season, apparently more concerned with impressing NBA scouts than making his teammates better. Gilchrist's on-court play directly impacted the team's performance, because he too often took a score-first, pass-second approach.
Maryland's patented flex offense often broke down as a result, largely because the ball didn't move the way it was supposed to, and because others joined in with the one-on-one mentality. It's natural that players aren't going to cut as hard or post as strong when they aren't confident that the point guard is going to deliver the ball.
Gilchrist's attitude and behavior -- his back-and-forth battles behind the scenes with coach Gary Williams since have been admitted by both parties -- affected Maryland in ways seen and unseen, steadily deteriorating the sense of team that is so vital to chemistry.
Strawberry is the exact opposite type of player, an unselfish sort who does all of the little things to help a team win. The versatile junior possesses an energy and enthusiasm that are contagious. He is not as smooth a ball-handler nor as talented a scorer as Gilchrist, but so far this season Strawberry has been more of a true point guard in terms of distributing the ball and making sure the offense runs smoothly.
The long-armed, 6-5 Strawberry also is a tremendous defensive weapon, suffocating when pressuring the ball and very adept at playing the passing lanes. His defensive presence definitely was missed in College Park last season, and he has helped make Maryland a strong pressing team again.
Strawberry is playing out of position at the point, and some have questioned whether he has the skills necessary to handle the position. However, he and Chris McCray have combined to run the offense quite effectively, as evidenced by the fact that Maryland has six players scoring in double figures and is shooting a sizzling 48 percent from the field.
Williams likes the way this team plays together. Everyone seems to understand his role, and so far the Terrapins have shown a mental toughness and tenacity that clearly were absent a year ago. Last season, Maryland routinely faded in the second half and found ways to lose. This season, the Terps have been a strong second-half squad and have done whatever it takes to win.
At the Maui Classic, Maryland found itself in a rough-and-tumble, back-and-forth battle with Arkansas. It was a real grinder that remained close late into the second half, but the Terps seized control and steadily pulled away.
Williams was even more impressed by what Maryland did against Minnesota in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The Terrapins fell behind by as many as 15 points in the first half, but they came out of the locker room breathing fire and opened the second half with an impressive 15-1 run. There were no letups thereafter, as the Terps romped 83-66.
Williams shook his head when asked whether he thought Maryland could have mounted such a gutsy comeback last season.
"To be honest with you, I don't think so," he said. "We went through some things last year. It made us stronger. I just like these guys. The chemistry is unbelievable. They really trust each other."
EARLY HIGHLIGHTS: MCCRAY, IBEKWE
Maryland's early season schedule produced several other interesting revelations. Perhaps the most obvious was the fact that McCray has become the unquestioned leader of this team.
The 6-4 guard has come a long way in four years, maturing from an emotionally fragile youngster to a mentally tough and savvy senior. Who will ever forget McCray (as a sophomore) getting into an argument with Williams and then breaking down on the bench at Cameron Indoor Stadium during a loss to Duke? Remember how Williams encouraged him to become more aggressive offensively?
Now McCray is the player who gets in the face of teammates when things aren't going well and wants the ball whenever the Terps are in a scoring drought. He is still a quiet sort off the court, but he has become more vocal on it, while providing a lot of positive emotion. He has been a lead-by-example type, playing with high levels of intensity and effort.
McCray also finally has embraced the role of go-to scorer and has been fairly consistent in averaging a team-high 16.5 points per game. He wants the ball in his hands, is shooting the jumper with confidence and attacking the basket more than ever before.
An added bonus has been his play at point guard, whenever Strawberry is out of the game. McCray knows the offense well enough to fill the role and has improved his ball-handling under pressure. Strawberry was in foul trouble through most of the Arkansas game, forcing McCray to play the point longer than usual. He was outstanding in that game, running the offense surprisingly well.
Another positive has been the offensive development of Ekene Ibekwe. The 6-9 junior forward has improved his shooting 10-fold and suddenly emerged as a serious low post threat.
Ibekwe spent some of the offseason working with Andy Enfield, a noted shooting instructor who has helped dozens of NBA players. Enfield eliminated the notorious hitch in Ibekwe's shooting motion and got him to change his release point from behind the head, moving it several inches forward.
So far, the results have been startling. Ibekwe is shooting 57 percent from the field and 73 percent from the free throw line. He was a woeful 41 and 55 percent, respectively, last season.
Ibekwe also has a better understanding of when and where he should be shooting. The athletic Californian has taken his game inside where it belongs, posting up and pounding the backboards for second-chance points. Much to the relief of the Maryland faithful, Ibekwe is not taking nearly as many perimeter jumpers and has attempted only three three-pointers.
FOOTBALL: FRIEDGEN TAKING STOCK
Coach Ralph Friedgen already has begun conducting a thorough evaluation and critical analysis of the Maryland football program.
Nobody is more disappointed that the Terps have regressed over the last two seasons, after winning 31 games and going to three major bowls from 2001-03. Back-to-back 5-6 campaigns have put Friedgen on the defensive, and he bristled at suggestions that the program has taken a step backward.
"I don't feel that way at all, but I've obviously gotten to be a worse coach these last two years," Friedgen snapped sarcastically at a reporter after Maryland's season-ending loss at N.C. State. "I feel just the opposite. I think our program is about ready to take off. I'm going to remind you of that next year when I see you."
Friedgen may have a point, since the Terrapins will return a slew of lettermen who have gained valuable experience over the past couple of years. However, the fifth-year coach cannot deny that major holes still exist in his lineup, and that a significant number of highly touted recruits have not performed up to expectations.
People scoffed when it was pointed out in this space prior to last season that Friedgen had not proven he can win with his own guys. That statement doesn't sound so ridiculous now, as all sorts of players the current staff crowed about landing have failed to produce.
Maryland fans didn't like to hear it, but ESPN analyst Mark May was right on the money when he said Friedgen needed to take a "hard look at the type of talent" he's bringing into the program.
There already is ample evidence that the current staff is not as good as the previous regime at evaluating high school prospects. Former head coach Ron Vanderlinden typically signed lower-rated prospects than Friedgen, but he was able to uncover many hidden gems.
Maryland's strong three-year run gave the current staff a better national reputation and entrée to more top-tier prospects, yet the results on the field have not matched the rankings of the recruiting classes.
Meanwhile, Maryland suffered a huge loss when defensive coordinator Gary Blackney announced his retirement following the N.C. State loss. He was a wily veteran with innovative schemes who kept the Terps near the top of the ACC in most defensive categories.
Early candidates being mentioned as possible replacements include current linebackers coach Al Seamonson, Kansas State defensive coordinator Chris Cosh (a former Vanderlinden assistant), Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta (likely a longshot) and Mississippi State defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson.
One positive development is that the new assistant likely will bolster Maryland's recruiting efforts, since Blackney never had much responsibility in that regard, and two seasons ago he was taken off the road entirely.
Friedgen also must deal with the annual Charlie Taaffe rumors, as the veteran offensive coordinator continues his search for a head coaching position. Taaffe also does no recruiting.
If Taaffe remains, he and Friedgen may need to take a long, hard look at the intricate offense they are employing. Several defensive coordinators around the ACC privately have suggested that the Terps' package is too demanding for their current personnel to execute.