By Eric Prisbell
November 20, 2007
COLLEGE PARK When Maryland's James Gist spent an entire Sunday before this season in North Carolina at the ACC's preseason media gathering, the senior did not have to guess how his teammates were spending their day off from practice. Gist knew most of the players were in a gym, polishing their game.
"That's just the way we are," Gist said with a shrug.
There is no guarantee that Maryland will make a second consecutive appearance in the NCAA Tournament, after losing five scholarship seniors and more than 50 percent of its scoring from a team that won 25 games. What is near-certain is that Gary Williams will relish coaching this young team because, for the first time in recent years, he has filled the roster with the type of blue-collar player he covets.
Whether it is the two returning starters Gist and guard Greivis Vasquez or the team's six freshmen, Williams believes he has a gritty cast of Terrapins who generally were overlooked in recruiting on the national level. Collectively, they take ownership for their own shortcomings. Individually, they work tirelessly on refining their games. They are born gym rats who possess the exact personalities Williams enjoys coaching.
"I have always enjoyed guys who love the game," said Williams, who is in his 19th season at Maryland. "I have been coaching a long time, and I have not been able to say that every year, that you have guys you necessarily look forward to getting onto the floor with every day. These guys play hard."
Maryland's players this season are in the mold of the unsung Juan Dixon-esque type found on the more successful teams Williams has coached. Williams has received his share of criticism from the passionate Terrapin fan base for not signing more celebrated recruits, particularly during this recent period when Georgetown's recruiting efforts have dominated local headlines.
But luring McDonald's All-Americans to College Park has never ensured Williams great success in the past. Former Terrapin forward Travis Garrison was a McDonald's All-American and part of the recruiting class that entered school the fall after Maryland won the 2002 national title. Fans were happy to see that class leave after it secured a dubious legacy, with back-to-back NIT berths in 2005 and 2006.
Last season's senior class which included another inconsistent McDonald's All-American, guard Mike Jones appeared on its way to a third straight appearance in the NIT before the Terrapins abruptly altered the course of the season with a seven-game ACC winning streak that included one victory over North Carolina and two against Duke.
The winning streak established Maryland as one of the nation's hottest teams and restored the program's national relevance after two subpar seasons. But players on this year's team said the return to the NCAA Tournament masked consistency issues that the current players hope to address with strong leadership.
Gist said seniors in the past had been reluctant to confront younger players because they were afraid they'd hurt their feelings. Gist harbors no such hesitance because he does not want small problems to fester throughout the season. He already has confronted young players about the importance of being on time to academic assignments, and the freshmen recognize him as the team's unquestioned vocal leader.
"This is my opportunity to give them (younger players) what I did not have," said Gist, one of 50 preseason candidates for the Wooden Award, given annually to the college basketball player of the year. "I am tired of sitting back. We did not have senior leadership" during Gist's first two seasons, which ended with the disappointing appearances in the NIT.
Gist is intent on ensuring that Maryland avoids the mental lapses that plagued the Terps in the past. To that end, he decided long before this season to call a players-only meeting in the days leading up to the season opener, during which he planned to press each player to express concerns or issues.
"I am not trying to make it like a boot camp," Gist said, "but we did not have enough players-only meetings in my first few years."
The other lesson learned from last season involved not overlooking opponents. Maryland had a tendency at times to play to the level of its competition.
Gist said one of the reasons for Maryland's three-point loss to Butler in the second round of the NCAA Tournament was that some players already were looking ahead to a potential matchup with defending national champion Florida in the Sweet 16. Gist said he and then-senior Ekene Ibekwe made the mistake of talking beforehand about possibly guarding Florida standouts Joakim Noah and Al Horford.
"I was part of the problem," Gist said. "A lot of people were focused on the next game."
Vasquez echoed Gist's philosophy and said the discipline is better on this year's team because the returning core of players understands the work ethic required to return to the NCAA Tournament. While Gist slowly has matured into a vocal leader, Vasquez has been outspoken since he arrived in College Park last season.
No player on Maryland better embodies the characteristics Williams likes in a playmaker than Vasquez, who is almost an on-court version of his coach a tough-minded player who wears his emotions on his sleeve. Williams won't stifle the emotions of Vasquez, who plays with a flair and swagger of a player determined to carve out a legacy of winning at Maryland.
"Last year we were happy getting to the NCAA Tournament," Vasquez said. "This season we want to win the national championship."
Whether that is even remotely possible remains to be seen, but the sentiment illustrates the confidence Vasquez exudes. His experience this summer playing on the Venezuelan national team in the FIBA Americas Championship, which included a chance to guard Kobe Bryant, made Vasquez believe he could play against any college player. Vasquez cherishes his experience guarding Bryant, who, Vasquez recalled, told him in Spanish that if he stayed hungry he had a chance to be in the NBA soon.
The perfect complement to Vasquez's flair is the game of fellow guard Eric Hayes, who exudes a quiet confidence and who has a steadying effect on the team. The fourth member of the returning core is Bambale Osby, a physically imposing frontcourt player who has an unselfish nature Williams likes.
Maryland's four key returnees should offer a desirable inside-outside blend, but they'll need help. Coaches expect it to take time for any of the six freshmen to distinguish themselves, although Williams believes they possess the same blue-collar ethic that the returning players have.
Despite the returning talent, Maryland has plenty of flaws. Finding more than one consistent outside shooter is a question. Rebounding will continue to be an issue, after the Terrapins struggled in that area last season. And it remains to be seen whether Maryland can duplicate its impressive defensive performance of last season after losing athletic players such as D.J. Strawberry and Ibekwe.
Regardless, Williams believes the team has a chance to be successful because, if nothing else, "I like these guys," he said. "We have guys we want to coach."
|1998||10-6 (3)||21-11||NCAA Sweet 16|
|1999||13-3 (2)||28-6||NCAA Sweet 16|
|2000||11-5 (2)||25-10||NCAA 2nd Round|
|2001||10-6 (3)||25-11||NCAA Final Four|
|2002||15-1 (1)||32-4||NCAA Champion|
|2003||11-5 (2)||21-10||NCAA Sweet 16|
|2004||7-9 (6x)||20-12||NCAA 2nd Round|
|2005||7-9 (6)||19-13||NIT Final Four|
|2006||8-8 (6)||19-13||NIT 1st Round|
|2007||10-6 (3)||25-9||NCAA 2nd Round|
x won ACC title
* returning starter
Forward James Gist entered the program with a ton of physical potential and has improved each year. He earned honorable mention All-ACC honors last season, averaging 12.7 points and 7.2 rebounds, and now hopes to become an NBA-caliber force. An explosive leaper with natural rebounding and shotblocking instincts, Gist has sharpened his skills and polished his offense, developing a reliable mid-range jumper and a few effective post moves. Guard Greivis Vasquez proved better than advertised as a freshman, emerging as a starter early and blossoming into a team leader and catalyst late. After a summer with the Venezuelan national team, he returned with a world of confidence and a burning desire to become an All-ACC performer.
Other Key Returnees
Touted as a Steve Blake clone, Eric Hayes had an uneven freshman season and never established himself as the starting point guard. However, the intelligent and fundamentally sound playmaker finished ninth in the ACC with 3.88 assists per game and fourth in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.83). Heady and composed, he needs to become the team's dominant floor leader in order to free Vasquez to play off the ball more often. Bambale Osby proved a pleasant surprise last season, establishing himself as the top frontcourt reserve. He led the team in field goal percentage (.563) and became aggressive offensively down the stretch. Will his production double with starter's minutes, or will his shortcomings be exposed? Landon Milbourne spent 2006-07 riveted to the bench but will be expected to start as a sophomore. He is plenty athletic and has a high upside, but there likely will be growing pains. Dave Neal is a serviceable reserve forward who provides solid defense, passing and shooting in short spurts.
Maryland has six freshmen on hand and will need contributions from several in order to function. Guard Adrian Bowie is a whirlwind of energy and effort whose hard-nosed defense and high-energy style will earn many minutes. Swingman Cliff Tucker has impressed with his sound ball-handling, polished passing and overall poise. He could push Milbourne at small forward. Redshirt freshman Jerome Burney may serve as the top frontcourt reserve. A decent rebounder and interior defender with long arms, he is limited offensively. There was hope that Braxton Dupree would make an immediate impact as an inside banger, but he's been slow to pick up the system. Shane Walker might redshirt while gaining much-needed strength and weight. Dino Gregory is athletic and active, but he plays like a power forward at 6-7 and must improve his ball skills.
Also Worth Noting
Vasquez may need to be reeled in a bit. The flamboyant Venezuelan is sometimes too animated and emotional on the court and needs to play on a more even keel. Additionally, his desire to be the go-to scorer already has drawn comparisons to John Gilchrist, which is not a positive. Two games into the season, coach Gary Williams made clear that Vasquez needed to settle down and let the game come to him. Touted freshman forward Gus Gilchrist hopes to begin practicing with the Terps in mid-December. If he picks up the system quickly, he could be a valuable midseason addition to the active roster.
Chart By: The Maryland Insider