January 24, 2007
COLLEGE PARK Maryland coach Gary Williams pulled somewhat of a surprise by scrapping the flex offense for a good portion of his team's Jan. 13 game against Clemson.
Williams installed more of a basic motion offense, ostensibly to make it easier to feed the ball inside. It wasn't outwardly noticeable to the casual fan, but many of Maryland's standard flex sets were eliminated in order to create better passing lines into the post.
Williams made the alteration in the wake of the team's abysmal offensive showing against Miami. The Terrapins shot a woeful 22 percent (13-for-58) from the field in suffering an ugly 63-58 upset loss at home.
Oddly, getting the ball inside was not a problem against Miami. Maryland's three primary frontcourt players Ekene Ibekwe, James Gist and Bambale Osby combined for 22 shots in that contest. Many of those attempts came from within three feet of the basket, but the big men (particularly Gist, who was 3-for-12) just could not finish.
Whatever Williams did differently clearly worked against Clemson, as Maryland shot 62.7 percent and scored 92 points in knocking the visitors from the ranks of the unbeaten. Most encouraging to Williams was the fact that the Terps recorded assists on 21 of 32 baskets versus the Tigers.
"We did a couple of things to open up the offense. We were predictable against Miami, and we weren't today," Williams said. "When we pass the ball and work together, we are a pretty good offensive team."
Maryland carried a few of the wrinkles into the Virginia game but primarily used the regular flex. It was hard to tell how well the offense worked, because the Terps were extremely impatient and sloppy handling the ball in a 103-91 defeat. They had 19 turnovers and misfired on 44 of 77 field goal attempts.
One alert Maryland fan reviewed the Virginia game tape carefully and found some interesting statistics. The Terps made two passes or fewer on 40 of their 67 half-court possessions and reversed the ball only seven times. Perimeter players passed the ball into the post a total of 35 times, but the interior players passed the ball back outside on just nine occasions.
Gist caught the ball in the post 14 times and scored just one field goal, missing seven shots and passing the ball four times while committing a turnover and drawing a foul. Ibekwe caught the ball in the post 11 times, with five missed shots, two field goals, two turnovers and just one kick-out pass. Will Bowers missed two shots and passed the ball four times on his six post touches, while Osby had two misses and two scores on his four.
Those were very telling numbers, because they showed how ineffective Maryland's frontcourt has been against ACC opponents. The Terps simply are not getting enough consistent interior scoring, and their lack of a legitimate post threat is affecting the entire offense.
There has been much debate among media and diehard fans over the years about the flex offense. Many observers wonder why Williams is so stubbornly wedded to the system and so inflexible in terms of tweaking it.
Williams probably appeased a lot of critics by showing a willingness to do something slightly different against Clemson. However, after using the system for most of his 27 seasons as a Division I head coach, there is no way Williams is trying something entirely new at this stage.
Some college basketball observers emphasize that a coach should adjust his offense to fit his personnel. Others insist that a good coach should be able to teach the players how to execute his system. Both make valid points.
By far the most important factor is to recruit players who have the skills to excel in the system. That is where Maryland may have made its mistake, as its recent collection of frontcourt talent has been a poor fit for the flex.
Maryland's system requires big men with ball-handling skills and an ability to score with their backs to the basket. They need to be able to catch the ball cleanly in the post and either make a post move or pass the ball quickly. The Terps have endured a dearth of those types ever since Lonny Baxter and Tahj Holden graduated.
By adjusting the offense, Williams finally may have been admitting that Maryland doesn't have inside players who are proficient at running the flex. It will be interesting to see how often the Terps employ a bastardized version of the offense for the rest of the season.
HELP WANTED: CLUTCH SCORER
Most successful teams have one or two go-to players on offense, guys who will take and often make the big shots at crucial times.
Maryland was blessed with many such players during its impressive streak of 11 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances. When the game was on the line, Williams could design a play to get the ball inside to post players Joe Smith, Keith Booth, Obinna Ekezie or Lonny Baxter. Guards such as Steve Francis, Juan Dixon and Drew Nicholas were never afraid to take the tough shot down the stretch. For one magical weekend in Greensboro, John Gilchrist was that player.
Clearly, a big reason why Maryland has missed the NCAA Tournament the past two seasons has been an inability to develop a go-to scorer. Gilchrist wanted too much to be the main man in 2004-05 and wound up destroying team chemistry. Chris McCray was slated to assume the role last season, but he flunked out of school.
For the third straight season, Maryland does not have anyone who would remotely meet the description of go-to guy.
Senior guard Mike Jones misses as many key shots as he makes and just does not have the mental makeup to be counted on in the clutch. Senior guard D.J. Strawberry has a take-charge personality but lacks the offensive game to match. Neither of the two primary post players, Gist and Ibekwe, has shown the desire or ability to take over a game.
It's a major problem because the Terps have no idea where to turn when the offense breaks down or the shot clock is ticking away. Strawberry wants to be the man to take the big shot, but he is shooting 9-for-37 from the field (including 1-10 on three-pointers) against ACC foes. Freshman guard Greivis Vasquez clearly has the confidence to take the tough shot, but he also has been inconsistent.
Vasquez shows the potential to become a go-to scorer down the road, but to ask the youngster to fill that role at this point of his career might not make sense. Thus, it's a major void that will continue to hold Maryland back until it is filled.
FOOTBALL STILL MAKING HEADLINES
There has been all sorts of personnel news on the football front.
Maryland picked up a notable transfer in safety Antwine Perez, a prep All-American who left Southern California because of a lack of playing time. However, the Terps lost another veteran offensive lineman when Brandon Nixon failed out of school.
Nixon's departure wasn't a surprise, as he sat out the 2006 season to concentrate on academics. However, the 6-6, 314-pound Pennsylvania product was a pretty good player, having started 11 games at right tackle as a redshirt sophomore in 2005.
Remember, Maryland already had lost one offensive lineman it was counting on for next season. Guard Donnie Woods opted not to return as a fifth-year senior, in order to pursue a military career. Coach Ralph Friedgen wasn't thrilled with Woods' decision, as the 6-3, 289-pound Florida product likely would have started this fall.
Now Maryland is waiting on pins and needles to find out whether standout middle linebacker Wesley Jefferson is going to do the same thing. Jefferson, who ranked second on the team with 110 tackles, is seriously considering foregoing his final season in order to pursue his dream of becoming a state trooper.
On the positive side, sophomore offensive tackle Jared Gaither decided to return to school instead of declaring for the NFL draft. While Gaither certainly has NFL size (6-9, 350), he clearly is not ready for that level. He even lost his starting job to Dane Randolph toward the end of last season.
Seldom-used offensive lineman Garrick Clig also will graduate and depart the program before using up his eligibility, while freshman fullback Chris Gronkowski has transferred to Arizona State to pursue baseball.
Meanwhile, defensive backs coach Tim Banks left the program to become the defensive coordinator at his alma mater, Central Michigan.