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Roller-coaster Ride Results In Optimism

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff


December 15, 2003 COLLEGE PARK — Welcome to the roller-coaster ride that is Maryland basketball this season. Climb aboard and prepare for plenty of ups and downs, frills and spills, jaw-dropping excitement and stomach-churning struggles. This is a team that already has shown it is capable of playing remarkably well or preposterously poor from one contest to the next. Often, these youthful Terps display their good and bad sides within a single game, even a single possession.

At this point, not even coach Gary Williams is sure which team will show up on a given day. Will it be the one that couldn't solve a zone or defend the three-point shot in falling behind West Virginia by 16 points, or the one that played frantic, full-court pressure defense and scored a slew of transition points in rallying to force overtime in that game? Will Williams get the club that was impatient on offense and couldn't make an open jumper in being soundly beaten by Gonzaga, or the one that played suffocating defense and shot the lights out in taking a 17-point lead on Florida?

Fans saw the good, bad and ugly sides of these Terrapins during a wild, eight-day, four-game stretch that told Williams a lot about his team. Maryland played tough throughout in knocking off 10th-ranked Wisconsin in overtime, then turned around and did little right in falling easily to No. 17 Gonzaga. The Terrapins sleep-walked for about 30 minutes against a mediocre West Virginia contingent, mounted a furious late rally to force overtime, then could not complete the comeback. The Terps carved up top-ranked Florida for 25 minutes, then hung on for dear life and showed surprising poise in a hostile environment in posting a huge overtime victory.

“It was a great week for this team in terms of learning. We've been through every situation, every emotion, you could possibly go through,” Williams said. “Now the question is: How do we use those experiences to make us better?”

With a squad comprised almost entirely of sophomores and freshmen, fans can be assured of more good and bad times. You can bet that Maryland will get blown out on the road at some point during the ACC grind. The Terps also probably will pull an exciting upset, perhaps over Duke, North Carolina or Wake Forest, at the Comcast Center.

What Williams must do is find a way to minimize the off outings by developing some consistency. One positive sign that emerged from the recent four-game flurry was that this team, despite its tremendous youth, looks as if it will compete no matter the circumstance.

Point guard John Gilchrist and forward Nik Caner-Medley are highly competitive types who are helping the Terps develop a warrior mentality. Freshman guard D.J. Strawberry, sophomore guard Chris McCray and senior center Jamar Smith also are “gamers” who play with a heads-down, no-holds-barred approach.

Of course, much of that attitude is instilled by Williams — the ultimate street fighter — whose toughness and tenacity gradually are absorbed by most of his players. It has to be encouraging to the veteran coach that his inexperienced club already possesses that important intangible trait.

Williams has said many times already this season that Maryland is a “work in progress.” Even the coach is learning this team's strengths and weaknesses on the fly, then making adjustments accordingly. For instance, Williams was stunned with how poorly the Terps defended the three-pointer during the BB&T Classic. That area of deficiency was then addressed at length in practice over the following days, and the team immediately showed dramatic improvement against Florida. Half-court offense also has been a continued area of concern, and the staff has spent considerable time teaching this unit how to run the various sets that are the staples of the flex offense.

One thing that was evident early and is not easily correctable was that Maryland is a terrible free throw shooting team. The Terps were a dismal 55 percent (88-for-159) from the line through seven games, with Smith, Caner-Medley and Strawberry the primary culprits. That is a problem that undoubtedly will come back to haunt Maryland during conference play, when so many games go down to the wire.

Strawberry Grabbed Collins' Role

No one was surprised at the announcement that junior guard Andre Collins would transfer from Maryland. However, the timing of the move made no sense for either the player or the program.

Most astute observers predicted from the outset that Collins would not play all four years at Maryland. The diminutive guard was a marginal ACC player who did not have the attitude or disposition to settle for being a career benchwarmer.

Collins was a 30-points-per-game scorer at tiny Crisfield High in Maryland. Although he often heard the doubts on the recruiting trail, he just was not willing to concede that his lack of height would prevent him from playing big-time basketball. He also possesses an inner fire and a competitive streak that often endeared him to Williams.

Maryland always has listed Collins at 5-10, but he's probably about 5-7. It takes a very special player, such as Spud Webb or Muggsy Bogues, to succeed in the ACC at that height. Collins, although quite quick and a good shooter, did not have any one outstanding skill that enabled him to overcome a glaring lack of height. It was obvious in game after game that Collins was a defensive liability. Opposing guards easily posted him up or shot right over top of him.

Perhaps the biggest drawback was that Collins was a shooting guard trapped inside a point guard's body. He is far more comfortable playing off the ball, and he has a scorer's mentality. Handling the ball, running the offense and setting up others just is not his strength.

Williams, ever the loyal type, tried hard to fit a square peg into a round hole. The coach began giving Collins more playing time late last season, as a backup to Steve Blake, and the results were mixed. Collins scored eight points on four-of-six shooting in a win over North Carolina and committed only six turnovers in 108 minutes, after totaling 12 in 83 minutes as a freshman.

However, the offense often bogged down when Collins was at the point, and he routinely gave up twice as many points as he scored. Most telling was that Collins did not even play in 12 games, an indication that Williams still did not feel entirely comfortable using him in certain situations and against top-quality opponents.

Collins opened this season as the clear-cut backup to Gilchrist at the point and was mediocre through six games. He didn't make many glaring mistakes, but he also didn't do much to distinguish himself.

When Williams began experimenting with Strawberry at the point more in practice, Collins quickly saw the writing on the wall. The junior also knew the staff had stepped up its recruitment of Allegany (Md.) Community College guard Sterling Ledbetter, who now looks like a solid bet to sign with Maryland in the spring.

Everyone involved — Williams, Collins, coaches, teammates — wanted things to work out. The hope all around was that Collins would develop into a reliable backup point guard and have a productive final two seasons in College Park.

Alas, both sides realized things weren't working out after just six games and thus decided to part ways. It's a shame that decision wasn't reached over the summer, as it could have saved Collins a half-season of eligibility.

By all accounts, the split was amicable on both sides, with Collins telling Williams he wanted to go somewhere he could start or at least play major minutes. The coach quickly contacted several mid-major schools on behalf of the player.

Collins' abrupt departure put added pressure on Strawberry, who now must assume the backup point guard role. It also left the Maryland backcourt a bit short, since Williams seems to have little confidence in seldom-used junior Mike Grinnon or highly touted freshman Mike Jones, whose behind has been firmly planted on the bench all season.

Not surprisingly, Williams' lone public statement about the transfer was to point out that Collins left Maryland in good academic standing. It was a subtle indication that the veteran coach knows the move once again will hurt the program's horrendous (27 percent) graduation rate, as determined by the NCAA.

Three of four recruits brought in for 2000-01 will not be considered graduates by the NCAA, since (in addition to Collins) Matt Slaninka transferred to Shepherd and Chris Wilcox left early for the NBA. Williams always has decried that policy, believing he should be held accountable only for players who remain at the school for four years. Slaninka and Collins were good students, but the NCAA formula views them in the same light as Wilcox.

However, it also should be noted that Williams has never had any qualms about getting rid of recruits who did not work out. Just ask Nick Bosnic, Kelly Hite or Slaninka, all of whom were told that they might want to continue their collegiate careers elsewhere after it became obvious that they wouldn't become big producers in College Park.

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