February 2, 2004 COLLEGE PARK It's impossible to predict with any confidence where this Maryland basketball season is headed, but at least one thing is clear: It's going to be a daily struggle, and anyone who thought otherwise in the preseason was kidding himself. The 2003-04 Terps are talented, athletic and tough. They're also young and inexperienced. What that combination usually produces is wild inconsistency moments of brilliance, countered by periods of ineptitude even with the outstanding coaching offered by Gary Williams and his staff.
Near the midpoint of the ACC season, Maryland (11-7, 2-5 ACC) appeared destined for that NCAA Tournament purgatory known as Bubble Land. It didn't take an expert to scan the team's second-half schedule, which includes trips to Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State, and realize that an 8-8 finish in league play would be a significant achievement.
The idea of Maryland missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1993 would be hard to swallow for most diehard fans, who (like supporters of many other consistent winners) have become spoiled by the program's remarkable success under Williams. It is rightfully a significant source of pride for all associated with the program that Maryland is one of only six schools (with Arizona, Cincinnati, Indiana, Kansas and Kentucky) to earn invitations to the NCAA Tournament in each of the past 10 years.
Yet any knowledgeable and objective fan knew going into this season that the coveted streak would be in jeopardy. This is a rebuilding campaign in every sense of the word, with Williams having to teach a team comprised almost entirely of freshmen and sophomores how to play Maryland basketball.
Naturally, there have been growing pains, as the youngsters learn the hard way what it takes to succeed at the highest level of college basketball. It's just a matter of bad timing that the Terps' big challenge came at a time when the ACC is more competitive than it has been in years, with seven different schools earning a national ranking at some point.
No Answer For Scoring Droughts
Maryland's penchant for playing superb basketball for half a game is becoming bothersome to Williams and the players. The words 40 minutes have been scrawled on the locker room chalkboard for many games now, but the theme has generated more talk than action thus far.
The Terps were terrific in the first half against Georgia Tech and Wake Forest, only to completely fall apart after intermission in both road games. They stunk it up in the first half versus Clemson, before regrouping and showing some serious grit and determination over the final 20 minutes. The fell apart in the second stanza against N.C. State.
It's getting old, sophomore guard Chris McCray said. It's time for us to go out and get it done for an entire game. You can't play in spurts and expect to win in this league.
We've got to come up with two halves, not just one, senior center Jamar Smith said. It's been killing us the whole season.
Most observers point to offense as the main source of the Terps' problems. In almost all of its losses this season, Maryland has endured a long scoring drought that has proven devastating.
The Terps put on an impressive offensive display in scoring 53 first-half points against Wake Forest. They attacked the basket with authority, knocking down open jumpers, getting contributions from everyone, shooting 51 percent from the floor and making 13 of 16 free throws. But it was a completely different story in the second half, as Maryland played tentatively, shot 36 percent, committed 14 turnovers, managed just two baskets in 11 minutes and was outscored 50-32.
A key factor is that Maryland doesn't have that go-to guy who will step up and hit a big shot to jump-start the offense when it is struggling. How many timely and crucial baskets did Juan Dixon, Drew Nicholas and Steve Blake make in recent years?
Equally problematic is the fact that this team does not have a reliable inside scorer. In years past, whenever the Terps went into a drought, Williams called a timeout and usually ordered the perimeter players to get the ball into the post. More often than not, Joe Smith, Keith Booth, Obinna Ekezie or Lonny Baxter delivered some type of power move to re-energize the attack.
Another big factor in Maryland's offensive woes this season has been its penchant for poor ball-handling. It starts with sophomore point guard John Gilchrist, who often falls into a mode of dribbling too much, instead of making sure the ball is moving. Smith and sophomore forward Nik Caner-Medley routinely attempt impossible or ill-advised passes.
Add it up and you have a club with a negative assist-to-turnover ratio. Through 17 games, the Terps had 257 assists and 270 turnovers. Those numbers usually were reversed during the years when Terrell Stokes or Steve Blake directed the flex offense.
We are not a good passing team. Our ball movement leaves a lot to be desired, Williams said. We have to improve our passing. That's been one of the keys to our success in recent years. We had guys who really knew how to find the open man.
Building Blocks: Defense, Toughness
Once again, Maryland fans need to realize that this team's best days are ahead of it, perhaps even a year down the road. But if this group of players stays together, the Terps could be a powerhouse again within a season or two.
Part of the fun of this season, win or lose, involves watching talented young players develop and seeing an inexperienced team come together. Truth be told, Williams probably has done one of his better coaching jobs so far this season, because (although it might not seem so at times) the Terps are gradually getting better.
This is a good year for me as a coach, because I enjoy teaching and developing players, Williams said. I'm a realist. I know we have a young team that is going to have its ups and downs. There are no easy wins in this league. It's a real grind. You have to win when you can and move on. If you don't, you can't get down. We're coming along fairly well.
Maryland even has dramatically improved its free throw shooting, converting at least 71.4 percent of its attempts in four of five games against ACC opponents since Jan. 14.
More impressive is the type of defensive effort the Terps have put forth throughout the season. Maryland ranks among the league leaders in field goal percentage defense, blocked shots and steals. The Terps held high-powered Duke to a season-low 68 points on 33.8 percent shooting.
It looks like we are a good defensive team, Williams said. That has to be our trademark this season. We may struggle to score at times, but that's OK because so far we have made it tough for our opponents to score.
Williams also has to be particularly pleased that his kiddie corps already has adopted the patented Maryland toughness. Gilchrist and Caner-Medley are the leaders of a band of players who don't back down from anyone or anything. California-bred freshmen D.J. Strawberry and Ekene Ibekwe also possess that hard-nosed attitude.
We're becoming the kind of team that goes out on the court and just plays, Gilchrist said. We're letting it all hang out and not being afraid to make mistakes.
Perhaps the most encouraging development in recent weeks was the more forceful play of sophomore forward Travis Garrison. The former McDonald's All-American, who was on the verge of being labeled a bust, suddenly emerged from his shell and became more aggressive in all areas of the game.
Garrison stopped settling for jump shots and began taking the ball to the basket, enabling him to score 24 points on the strength of 12-for-14 free throw shooting against Clemson and Wake Forest. His new-found confidence manifested itself in the rebounding and defense departments as well.
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