February 26, 2008
COLLEGE PARK When you lose non-conference games to the likes of Virginia Commonwealth, Ohio and American, you leave yourself little margin for error.
Maryland put itself back into the NCAA Tournament conversation by getting hot and winning seven of nine games in the ACC. However, the Terrapins hit a wall before completing the job.
Consecutive losses to Virginia Tech and Miami placed Maryland precariously back on the NCAA bubble, with time running out on the season. The Terps need to win at least two of their three remaining regular-season games in order to secure an NCAA berth, and that's no easy feat considering that the Wake Forest and Virginia matchups will come on the road.
Of larger concern for coach Gary Williams was figuring out why the Terps suddenly stopped playing at a high level. The team that played so inconsistently against Virginia Tech and Miami more closely resembled the Maryland of December than the Maryland that worked its way into third place in the ACC.
Seemingly overnight, the high energy and crisp execution that had keyed the team's strong surge abandoned Maryland. On the surface, it appeared that the Terps grew tired, which wasn't surprising considering the way Williams has ridden his starters this season. Guards Greivis Vasquez and Eric Hayes are averaging 36.6 and 34.4 minutes, respectively, while power forward James Gist is logging 31.5 minutes per game.
Many had predicted this problem as Maryland's bench grew shorter and shorter during conference play. It didn't seem possible that players could sustain playing 36 or 38 minutes on a regular basis without wearing down, although Williams argued that television timeouts broke up the game enough to allow for ample rest.
Recent evidence seemed to contradict Williams, as several Terps showed signs of fatigue.
Gist, in particular, endured a dramatic dropoff in performance level, producing just 17 points in the back-to-back losses to Virginia Tech and Miami. The 6-8 senior just didn't have the energy and intensity he displayed during Maryland's impressive run through the ACC and was in foul trouble in both games.
Truth be told, Maryland hasn't played really well since beating N.C. State on Feb. 9. That was followed by a loss at Duke that saw the Terps commit 19 turnovers and become unraveled a bit down the stretch. The lone win during the tough four-game stretch came at home against Florida State, which led 40-32 at halftime.
Another explanation for Maryland's recent struggles was that opponents figured out how to defend the team better.
Gist and center Bambale Osby were not nearly the inside scoring forces they were for a stretch of league play, as opposing coaches took steps to negate that advantage. Teams used zones and collapsing defenses to clog the middle and make sure there were always plenty of bodies around Gist and Osby.
Speaking of Gist's recent offensive struggles, Williams said: "It's probably a little more crowded in there when he catches the ball."
Simply put, opponents are not allowing Gist and Osby to post up one-on-one anymore, and as a result their combined production has decreased.
While Osby has continued to grind it out underneath and figure out a way to score, Gist too often has settled for jump shots. Williams challenged Gist to find other ways to score, such as pounding the offensive glass.
With its interior scoring shut down a bit, Maryland reverted somewhat to the team in December that struggled to score. The offense lost its inside-outside balance and looked out of sync as a result.
BENCH: NO RELIEF IN SIGHT?
Williams must be bitterly disappointed with the development of Maryland's six freshmen.
Swingman Cliff Tucker is the only member of the group who has provided any sort of consistency, while several others actually have regressed during the season.
Energetic guard Adrian Bowie showed flashes with strong outings in consecutive games against Virginia Tech and Wake Forest, but he faded considerably in recent weeks. After totaling 22 points in those two games, Bowie managed just 14 over the last 10 and made silly mistakes that annoyed Williams.
A major reason for the home loss to Virginia Tech was that Gist and Osby spent considerable time on the bench with foul trouble. Williams was forced to use freshman big men Braxton Dupree and Shane Walker for extended minutes, and the two produced virtually nothing.
Dupree, in fact, has become a liability, as his conditioning is terrible. He was beaten down the floor repeatedly in transition and just does not have much stamina. After starting seven straight games early in the season and playing quite well at times, Dupree has taken a huge step backward, and it seemed tied to the fact that he gained a significant amount of weight over the Christmas break.
Small forward Dino Gregory does not play at all anymore, and he is the latest subject of transfer rumors. Many observers had redshirt freshman big man Jerome Burney as the most likely candidate to transfer, since he's barely been used all season.
However, Williams decided out of the blue to give Burney 12 minutes of action against Miami, and the youngster performed rather well. The 6-9, 222-pounder was active and showed a lot of bounce in totaling four points and five rebounds while filling in for the foul-prone Gist. Burney was more of a factor than either Walker or Dupree had been of late, and it made one wonder why Williams had refused to play Burney all season.
Williams said Burney had played much better in practice lately and thus earned the playing time over the other young big men. It was interesting that Burney had his coming-out party against Miami, since that is the program that rescinded its scholarship offer after the Atlanta native had given coach Frank Haith a commitment.
It will be interesting to see if Burney can back up that strong outing with a few more down the stretch.
No matter how you slice it, however, Williams and staff will have a lot of work to do in the offseason in order to get the group of young frontcourt players to the point where they can contribute next season. Osby and Gist both will be gone, and some of the aforementioned big men are going to have to play considerable minutes.
Fortunately for Williams, Augustus Gilchrist will become eligible next season, and he will give the Terps a legitimate low-post scoring threat. According to coaches and players, Gilchrist has been quite impressive in practice and is far more talented and polished than Burney, Dupree and Walker.