March 31, 2005
COLLEGE PARK Does Maryland's offense flow better without the team's season-long starting point guard? Hmmm. Do the Terrapins share the ball better when their small forward and leading scorer takes fewer shots? Interesting.
Maryland looked like an entirely different basketball team at times during its initial three games in the National Invitational Tournament, which earned the Terrapins a trip to Madison Square Garden for the semifinals.
Coach Gary Williams pointed out with pride that the Terps totaled 33 assists in victories over Oral Roberts and Davidson. As a result, the team had eight different players score in double figures. The trends continued in a quarterfinal win over Texas A&M.
What led to this transformation? It was impossible to overlook the fact that the offensive improvement coincided with the absence of John Gilchrist. The mercurial junior point guard suffered a sprained ankle in the ACC Tournament loss to Clemson, and he was in street clothes for all three aforementioned NIT games.
Junior Sterling Ledbetter took over as the starter and performed admirably. The first-year transfer from Allegany Community College had a solid line of 10 points, nine rebounds and five assists in an 85-72 victory over Oral Roberts, then 10 points and eight assists in a 78-63 defeat of Davidson.
Several observers felt Ledbetter, who is every bit as big (6-4, 195) and a bit quicker than Gilchrist, gave Maryland better defense on the ball. An offseason car accident and preseason leg injury slowed Ledbetter's development earlier this season, but it's clear that he is beginning to grasp Maryland's flex offense while playing with much more poise.
"Sterling is starting to see the court much better and is getting more comfortable with what we do," Williams said. "The point guard should give other guys opportunities to score, which is what Sterling is doing."
Ouch. That sure sounded like a back-handed slap at Gilchrist, whose scorer's mentality and apparent unwillingness to play set-up man has been blamed (probably correctly) for much of Maryland's lack of offensive continuity. Constant motion and crisp ball movement are the keys to the flex, which often stalled when Gilchrist dribbled away half the shot clock or put his head down and drove to the basket.
While Ledbetter still is prone to playing too fast and forcing passes (six turnovers versus Davidson), he at least is thinking pass-first and trying to get others involved. That was evidenced by the fact that Maryland suddenly boasted a balanced attack in the NIT, after going all season relying too heavily on Gilchrist, Nik Caner-Medley and Chris McCray.
A renewed commitment to passing, along with a point guard who worked to put others in position to score, helped spread the wealth. Power forward Travis Garrison and backup swingman Mike Jones both scored 18 points, while center Will Bowers had a career-high 14, against Oral Roberts. Freshman forward James Gist had 15 points to lead six players in double figures versus Davidson. Against A&M, Caner-Medley had 20, Jones and McCray 18, Garrison 15 and Ibekwe 10.
It also did not go unnoticed when Caner-Medley became less trigger-happy during the NIT. The junior forward averaged nearly 14 shots per game during the regular season, but took just 29 (combined) in the three NIT victories.
A conspiracy theorist might wonder whether Williams decided to conduct a postseason experiment to see how the team would play without Gilchrist and with Caner-Medley in a reduced offensive role. If that were the case, the results would have to be considered positive, since the scoring has been spread so nicely among so many.
It also appears that Ibekwe finally has been convinced to take his offensive game inside, where it belongs. He also may have been reminded that his greatest contributions come on the defensive end, through rebounding and blocking shots.
Ibekwe played by far his best game in months by totaling 11 points, nine rebounds and five blocks against Davidson. The 6-9 sophomore power forward was active and aggressive, as he hadn't been since the Wisconsin game in early December.
Hindsight is always 20/20, but perhaps Williams should have implemented these changes weeks ago, when there still was time to salvage this season.
More Signs: Gilchrist NBA-Bound
It is looking more and more like Gilchrist has played his final game in a Maryland uniform.
Gilchrist told reporters following the Davidson game he was "done for the season," then quickly retracted that statement. There was speculation among beat writers and fans that the junior's injuries weren't severe enough to put him in street clothes, and that it was Williams who made that call for a variety of reasons.
A few days after the ACC Tournament, Gilchrist publicly stated that he planned to at least test the NBA waters this year. That may have been enough for Williams to decide that the Virginia Beach native's career had run its course in College Park. Indeed, the Terps contacted several high school (seniors) and junior college (sophomores) guards for the first time in March, which is an extraordinarily late time to start the recruiting process in the normal course of events.
Williams hinted that there might be something to the Gilchrist-NBA theory when asked after the Davidson game why the point guard wasn't even dressing.
"He's legitimately got a bad wrist and a bad ankle," Williams said. "To play and get re-injured might not be in John's best interest right now."
Although the NIT television cameras kept panning to Gilchrist on the bench in street clothes, it appears that Williams and his players have made a conscious decision to move on without him, for better or for worse.
Staff Shuffle Cause For Concern?
Maryland's football program suffered a significant blow in the weeks after national signing day, when recruiting coordinator James Franklin abruptly resigned to become the wide receivers coach for the NFL's Green Bay Packers.
Franklin's departure hurt for several reasons, not the least of which was the fact that he was largely responsible for the Terrapins signing back-to-back recruiting classes that ranked in the top 25 nationally.
What Maryland likely will miss most are the many connections Franklin had developed during his five-year tenure in College Park. He was the lone holdover remaining from former coach Ron Vanderlinden's staff, and thus he had some of the strongest relationships with high school coaches and others involved in the recruiting world.
Franklin learned the tricks of the trade while serving as Maryland's assistant recruiting coordinator under Mike Locksley. He was an obvious choice to replace Locksley when the latter left for Florida, and it provided for a relatively seamless transition.
Franklin also was Maryland's best recruiter, as he had the smooth and suave personality needed to woo players and their families. Simply put, Franklin was one heck of a salesman, well-dressed and well-spoken, and he cut an impressive figure.
The Terps were ill-prepared for Franklin to exit, as there was no ready-made replacement on staff.