March 29, 2004 COLLEGE PARK Maryland's youthful basketball team gave its fans a bonus by putting together a six-game winning streak that produced an ACC Tournament title, a fourth seed in the NCAA Tournament and a first-round win in the West Regional. Such a season-ending flurry was totally unexpected out of a squad that had struggled all season and seemed flawed in so many ways. It was an incredibly positive finish that resulted in another 20-win season and provided tremendous hope for the future. Yet coach Gary Williams knows that not all the problems that plagued the Terps in 2003-04 are cured. This will be an extremely important offseason for the program, as all nine sophomores and freshmen must make noticeable improvement in order for Maryland to move up in the ACC hierarchy. Only point guard is a more important position than center, where Maryland loses senior Jamar Smith and has no ready replacement. Smith stepped up strong this season, nearly averaging a double-double and at times giving the Terps the inside scoring option that is so important in the flex offense. Obviously, the prime candidate to take over in the middle is Hassan Fofana, the massive freshman from Weston, Mass., by way of New Guinea. The 6-10, 290-pound block of granite developed quite nicely over the course of the season and gave the Terps valuable minutes off the bench down the stretch. Fofana has shown solid defense and rebounding ability, but he needs a lot of work before becoming a reliable low post threat. Williams and his staff certainly have proven they know how to develop big men, as Obinna Ekezie and Lonny Baxter both evolved into NBA prospects. Fofana may be more of a project than either, although he has the good hands and footwork that is required. He already possesses a decent jump hook, but so far he has not shown any other post moves. If Fofana does not develop well enough by next season, Williams could choose to use skinny forward Ekene Ibekwe in the middle. The 6-9, 211-pounder really needs to add weight and strength in order to bang down low, but he has many of the instincts and abilities coaches look for in a center. He is a tremendous leaper who blocks shots, rebounds and takes the ball strong to the basket. Ibekwe is further along offensively than Fofana and appears capable of scoring with his back to the basket. However, he also has not shown any repertoire of post moves and appears more comfortable facing the hoop. It appears Williams has come to a mutual understanding with Travis Garrison, the 6-8 sophomore power forward. After initially trying to transform Garrison into a post player, Williams has relented some and allowed him to remain in part a face-the-basket shooter. What Williams did get Garrison to do was play better post defense, rebound harder and take the ball to the basket stronger. The former McDonald's All-American was a pleasant surprise this season, as he stepped up his game in all areas. Clearly, the missing piece for this Maryland team is a quick, athletic small forward who can slash to the basket and consistently knock down three-pointers. Nik Caner-Medley simply is not an ACC-caliber wing player at this stage of his career, a fact that became painfully obvious during the latter stages of this season. It's a shame, because Caner-Medley has a number of positive attributes. He's tough, a gamer, takes the ball hard to the basket and possesses a decent jumper when given time and space to shoot. However, the 6-8, 233-pound product of Maine just does not have the quickness to play the three position on defense at this level. Maryland could consider starting Mike Jones at small forward next season. The 6-5 freshman showed he has the physical ability to play that position, and he provides many of the skills Caner-Medley lacks. Jones can be a very reliable three-point shooter from the wing and also has the quickness to beat defenders off the dribble. His defense, much-maligned early in the season, got better with more playing time. He is a very quick leaper who soared over the competition on many occasions to haul down rebounds above the rim. Meanwhile, John Gilchrist evolved into an outstanding point guard in all areas, vastly improving his floor leadership and distribution skills toward season's end. Chris McCray also came a long way in his sophomore campaign, learning how to become the take-charge scorer Maryland desperately needs at the wing guard spot. Maryland fans are rightfully very excited about the potential of this team. If these nine sophomores and freshmen stay together for two more seasons, another ACC title and/or Final Four berth is a definite possibility. Considering the competition, though, the Terps will need a very productive offseason to challenge for those heights in 2004-05. Friedgen Watching QB, Secondary This is a crucial spring camp for the Maryland football program, as coach Ralph Friedgen and his staff have a number of holes to fill. Obviously, the most visible position of concern is quarterback, where the Terps must replace two-year starter Scott McBrien. Friedgen and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Charlie Taaffe will be carefully scrutinizing redshirt sophomores Joel Statham and Sam Hollenbach along with redshirt freshman Ryan Mitch. Statham entered spring practice No. 1 on the depth chart, solely by virtue of having played in a real game last season. He took over against Georgia Tech after McBrien was knocked out and understandably struggled, considering the circumstances. Friedgen has said he likes certain qualities in all three young quarterbacks but also sees weaknesses in each. The bottom line is that the starting job is totally up for grabs, and whichever signal-caller steps up this spring will go into August two-a-days as the main man. Privately, Maryland coaches have called Mitch the darkhorse in this race. The product of nearby DeMatha Catholic was quite impressive running the scout team last season and has the look and attitude of a big-time quarterback. If Mitch can pick up the offense during spring camp, he could surpass Statham and Hollenbach. Friedgen and Taaffe have stated that they intend to dramatically scale back the play package in order to give the three youngsters a fair opportunity to show what they can do. At the same time, intelligence and on-field decision-making are key elements to playing quarterback at Maryland, and those skills need to be ascertained under fire this spring. Another area of concern is secondary, where Maryland lost three starters and three backups. It's a wide-open depth chart, and there are a slew of youngsters battling to earn playing time. There figures to be a good battle to earn the starting left cornerback job, opposite Domonique Foxworth. Remember that Maryland purposefully redshirted junior college transfer Ruben Haigler in 2003, in anticipation of being thin in the backfield this fall. Haigler had a superb August camp and clearly was the team's third-best cornerback, but he would not have started over Curome Cox. It made sense to have him sit out and play this coming season, when there is a much greater need. However, Haigler is not going to be handed the job, as true freshman Josh Wilson saw significant playing time last season and showed tremendous promise. He is faster but not as physical as Haigler. By far the biggest question mark involves finding a replacement for free safety Madieu Williams, an All-ACC performer and possible NFL draft pick. Rising junior Ray Custis was listed as the backup at season's end, but he will get a run for his money from redshirt freshman Marcus Wimbush and others. There also are holes to fill along the defensive line, where three starters are gone. Underrated tackle C.J. Feldheim graduated, while All-ACC nose guard Randy Starks declared early for the NFL draft. Defensive end Scott Smith also is gone, although he was not starting because of injury by season's end. Maryland got some good news recently when 2003 Peach Bowl hero Justin Duffie was cleared to resume playing. Duffie, a former walk-on, was thrust into a starting role against Tennessee because of injuries and suspension and performed quite well. He sat out all of last season with Crohn's Disease, a condition that apparently has cleared up. Rising sophomores Conrad Bolston and Robert Armstrong are the leading candidates to take over in the middle, while rising junior Kevin Eli came on strong last season at the strong side defensive end spot. Defensive line coach Dave Sollazzo is most concerned with developing some depth along the line and is looking for some youngsters to step up this spring.