November 30, 2004
COLLEGE PARK Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams had one primary goal for his team going into the 2004-05 season: He wanted the Terrapins to pick up where they left off last season.
Williams put a lot of energy and effort into developing last year's young, inexperienced squad. There were some serious struggles and growing pains along the way, as the veteran coach taught a team consisting of nine freshmen and sophomores how to play Maryland-style basketball. By season's end, the Terps were playing at a high level, working well as a unit and executing on both ends of the floor during a six-game winning streak.
Williams wondered aloud during the 2004 preseason whether he would see the squad that captured the ACC Tournament right off the bat or whether it would take time to get back to that level. He was hopeful that there would be no regressions and that the lessons learned in 2003-04 would not have to be repeated.
That's why Williams had to be extremely pleased with Maryland's recent performance against Memphis in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Classic. The Terrapins appeared in midseason form while completely dismantling a talented opponent that was ranked 25th nationally. Particularly encouraging was the Terps' obvious improvement in several aspects of the game. Half-court defense, offensive continuity, free throw shooting, passing and consistency all were problem areas a year ago.
Most impressive about the 84-61 rout of Memphis was Maryland's relentless defensive effort. The Terrapins hounded dribblers, pressured the passing lanes and challenged every shot in taking the Tigers totally out of their offense. The Terps displayed superb overall quickness in forcing 21 turnovers, snatching 14 steals and blocking seven shots.
Early indications suggest that Williams may have a great shotblocking team on his hands. The four primary members of the frontcourt rotation Travis Garrison, Ekene Ibekwe, Nik Caner-Medley and James Gist all have good leaping ability, timing and instincts, which is why the Terps had a whopping 27 blocks through three games.
Meanwhile, Williams always has liked to overplay the passing lanes, and this team has the type of quick, long-armed players who excel at doing so. Guards D.J. Strawberry and Chris McCray, both 6-5, are the top thieves on an aggressive team that already has piled up 41 steals and forced 76 turnovers.
It took all of last season for Maryland to figure out how to properly run the flex offense Williams always has employed. This year's edition looks much better in that area already, making sharp cuts, setting solid picks and passing the ball crisply against Memphis. The Terps consistently worked hard to get open looks and wound up totaling 20 assists and shooting 49 percent from the field.
Last year's contingent was abysmal from the free throw line, making just 63 percent for the season. That's another weakness that seems to be corrected so far, as the Terps were shooting 76.2 percent from the charity stripe after going 16-for-21 against Memphis.
Williams repeatedly bemoaned Maryland's lack of a killer instinct last season. The Terrapins just could not seem to put opponents away, blowing all sorts of leads during the up-and-down campaign. Such was not the case against Memphis, as Maryland stretched an eight-point halftime lead to 32 at one point. The Terps used a 15-5 run to take control but weren't satisfied, going on another 10-0 spurt that turned the game into a rout.
"That shows the maturity level of this team," Williams said. "When you have the opportunity, you stretch the lead and bury teams."
Of course, there are weaknesses that need to be addressed. Memphis out-rebounded Maryland 45-37, continuing a disturbing trend that manifested itself in two exhibition games, as well as against patsies Jackson State and Mercer. Post scoring also is an obvious weakness, as this team simply has no big man with reliable back-to-the-basket skills.
Quarterback Derby Worth Watching
A month ago, when Maryland football coach Ralph Friedgen was frustrated with his quarterback situation, he said something that seemed quite damning. Discussing the inconsistent play of starter Joel Statham and the inexperience of true freshman Jordan Steffy, Friedgen blurted: "We've just got to work to get those two guys better. I don't know what else you want me to do. That's all I got."
In effect, Friedgen was indicating that Maryland had no answers at quarterback beyond Statham and Steffy. That quip certainly could not have sat well with Sam Hollenbach and Ryan Mitch, the other scholarship signal-callers on the roster.
Lo and behold, it turns out that Maryland may have another quarterback with potential after all. Hollenbach, who plummeted from No. 2 to No. 4 on the depth chart during the preseason, unexpectedly emerged in November as the possible starter in 2005. In one of the strangest developments of a disappointing season, Hollenbach leapfrogged to the top of Maryland's quarterback heap during the course of one game.
Statham hit rock-bottom with a woeful performance against Virginia Tech, throwing two costly interceptions and once again looking like a deer in the headlights. It looked very much like the end of the line for Statham, who was benched late in the first half in favor of Steffy. A highly touted recruit out of Lancaster, Pa., Steffy didn't fare much better in the 55-6 rout, throwing an interception, then suffering a concussion while trying to make the ensuing tackle.
Hollenbach came on late in the Tech game and actually showed some poise in completing five of eight (meaningless) passes for 53 yards. By the following Monday, Maryland's quarterback picture had changed dramatically.
Statham, for whom Friedgen had shown unwavering support, was out. It was obvious that the coaching staff no longer had confidence in the redshirt sophomore, whose play in games never matched his performance in practice. With Steffy declared done for the season as a result of the concussion and Mitch coming off a two-game suspension, Hollenbach suddenly was thrust into the starting role.
A 6-5, 218-pounder, Hollenbach made a decent starting debut, completing 16 of 27 passes for 164 yards while directing a 13-7 victory over Wake Forest. At times during the fourth quarter of the Virginia Tech game and in the first half of the Wake contest, Hollenbach threw the ball better than any other Maryland quarterback this season. He stood firmly in the pocket, read the field, found open receivers and delivered the ball on time and on target.
Hollenbach's mobility has been questioned, but he looked nimble in sidestepping several rushers during the game. Most importantly, he did not commit a single turnover, eliminating the intereptions and fumbles that plagued Statham all year.
Hollenbach had threatened to transfer after being demoted to fourth on the depth chart during the preseason. Friedgen had at least one serious discussion with Sam's father Jeff Hollenbach, a high school coach who played QB at Illinois.
"I decided (in August) to give this one more year and be totally committed to the program and see what happens," Sam Hollenbach said at the end of the season. "I really can't see myself transferring now, but me and my dad will sit down and discuss the situation and come up with a solution."