March 1, 2004 COLLEGE PARK As this winter of discontent winds down for Maryland, diehard fans are rightfully asking some hard questions. Such as: How did Maryland go from perennial ACC contender to bottom-feeder seemingly overnight? Realistic observers knew this wasn't going to be a great season, but few expected this. With two games remaining in the regular season, Maryland was assured of its first losing record in the ACC since 1992-93. Barring a road upset of second-place N.C. State or an unlikely run in the ACC Tournament, the Terrapins will miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1993. The Terps currently rank as one of only six programs with NCAA streaks of 10 seasons or longer.
Maryland put itself on the NCAA bubble with a late-season swoon, suffering a 4-8 stretch and going 0-7 against ranked teams. A flawed squad had its weaknesses exposed over the course of the rigorous league schedule and ultimately caved. Every starter struggled at some point along the way.
Point guard John Gilchrist, who for better or worse is the heart and soul of this squad, hurt the Terps with his inability to distribute the ball and run the offense. The dribble-happy sophomore too often took it upon himself to score instead of working harder to get others involved.
Chris McCray, perhaps best described as a non-shooting guard, was too timid offensively and woefully inaccurate as a perimeter shooter. The soft-spoken sophomore shot 14-for-44 (31 percent) from the field during a seven-game stretch in February and was benched after an emotional argument with Williams during the Duke game.
Power forward Travis Garrison lost his starting spot for a few games in early January because of a lack of production. The former McDonald's All-American was much more consistent in the second half of the ACC schedule, but he still has games in which he doesn't score or rebound.
Small forward Nik Caner-Medley, touted in the preseason as a potential go-to guy, saw his entire game go to pieces in February. The 6-8 sophomore, a classic tweener who some consider more of a power forward, struggled to defend opposing wings such as Julius Hodge and Rashad McCants, then allowed it to affect his offense. Caner-Medley went through a three-game stretch in which he averaged just 6.3 points on 29.6 percent shooting, and his ball-handling was even worse. The left-hander hit bottom against Clemson, enduring his first scoreless game of the season while committing a career-high seven turnovers.
No player has regressed more than center Jamar Smith, who was benched during the devastating home loss to Wake Forest. The 6-9 senior showed flashes of being the post presence this team desperately needed, with 25 points and 12 rebounds versus Wisconsin along with 22 points and nine rebounds against North Carolina. However, the junior college transfer soon wilted under the strain of playing out of position and banging against bigger, stronger centers. He also endured a horrendous three-game stretch, averaging 5.7 points on 24.1 percent shooting.
The great teams we've had here have always gotten better, all the way through the NCAA Tournament. There was never a peak, Williams said recently. What you did in November and December is probably not good enough for late February and March.
More Player Development Needed
Of course, the obvious next question on the minds of diehard Maryland basketball fans is whether this group of players will perform better next season and beyond. Are Maryland's problems this season attributable largely to youth and inexperience, or is the talent level just not what it initially appeared to be?
There is probably a little bit of truth in both theories.
Caner-Medley is a solid player who does a lot of things well, but it's doubtful he'll become one of the elite players in the conference. Gilchrist clearly has first-team All-ACC potential, but he needs to dramatically change his mentality and style of play in order to reach his vast potential as a point guard. McCray is not nearly the dead-eye shooter he was touted to be and generally does not possess the aggressive, cocksure personality that is needed to play shooting guard in Maryland's system.
Garrison, vastly overrated as a McDonald's All-American out of high school, is a limited power forward who has shown no indication that he'll ever be dominant in the low post. Massive freshman center Hassan Fofana has shown flashes of ability and certainly could provide more of an interior presence underneath than Smith. However, the 6-10 native of Guinea must improve his skills in order to become an impact player in the ACC.
Freshmen Mike Jones and Ekene Ibekwe may have the highest upside, and they could very well find themselves in the starting lineup next season. Jones needs to gain a better grasp of the offense and play much tougher defense, while Ibekwe must bulk up and improve his scoring skills. All of which leads to the ultimate question: Has Maryland capitalized on consecutive Final Four appearances and winning a national championship in 2002?
Many Maryland fans thought the program had reached a new level on the national scene and joined the likes of Arizona, Duke, Kentucky and Kansas among college basketball's elite. It was presumed that, like the others, Williams would be able to pick and choose McDonald's All-Americans. As a result, of course, the Terps would win.
The players who took the Comcast Center floor this season are the products of those two Final Four appearances. They are the recruits the Terrapins came up with on the heels of those two magical seasons.
Garrison and Jones were McDonald's All-Americans, but the reality is that neither has been the immediate-impact player one would expect of recruits accorded that status. They won't ever be confused with J.J. Redick or Luol Deng of Duke in terms of ability and skill. Gilchrist, Caner-Medley and Ibekwe all were rated among the top 50 recruits in the country as high school seniors. McCray, Strawberry, Fofana and Will Bowers were considered top-100 prospects by some analysts, top-150 by others.
Is that so-so recruiting, or simply a statement about Maryland's place in the world of college basketball? Is it right to expect the Terps to consistently challenge Duke and Kansas for McDonald's All-Americans, or does Williams need to settle for second-tier prospects?
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