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Superb Point Guard Still Adding Honors

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

February 24, 2003 COLLEGE PARK — It hasn't been announced yet, but senior point guard Steve Blake is going to have his jersey hung from the Comcast Center rafters. It probably will happen during upcoming Senior Day ceremonies, prior to the home finale against Clemson.

There's no question Blake, a four-year starter, is a worthy candidate to join the list of all-time Maryland greats. He has been at the helm for the most successful four-year period in the history of Maryland basketball. He has compiled an incredible career record of 99-32 (and counting), while leading the Terps to consecutive Final Four appearances and a national title.

The skinny 6-3 youngster from the Miami area has started more games (129 as of Feb. 23) than any other player to come through the program, surpassing Keith Booth in that category. He is the school's all-time assists leader and could become only the fourth player in NCAA history to surpass 1,000 in that category.

An absolute wizard at setting others up for open shots, Blake is the consummate playmaker. He's an excellent ball-handler and a creative passer. When asked to increase his scoring this season, in the absence of primary options Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter, Blake has responded by averaging 12.2 points per game and shooting a career-high 41 percent from three-point range.

While Blake has made a lot of huge baskets for the Terps over the course of his career, no one quite realized he was this accurate of a perimeter shooter.

“Steve's a very good shooter. He seems to shoot better when we need them,” Williams said. “I've seen him miss shots when we're up by 15, but he doesn't miss many when it's close.”

“It's not like it's something I haven't done before,” Blake said. “When I played in pickup games my whole life, I've always been able to score. It's just been since I've been in college (that I've focused more on passing). I've never been a first option to score, but I'm capable of doing it. I need to be playing at the top of my game. I like to put that pressure on myself and believe if I play well we'll go far and (I will) make my teammates play better.”

Ask any coach in the ACC about Blake, and they will profess the utmost respect for the kid's abilities as a floor general. Most also will express complete admiration for his gritty competitiveness.

“I'm a big Steve Blake fan,” North Carolina coach Matt Doherty said. “He always gives you all he's got out on the floor. He's a winner. Ö He's like an assassin. He may only have but five points in a game, but they need a big basket and he nails a three.”

Besides his victory total, perhaps the most remarkable statistic that shows what a terrific all-around player Blake has been for four years is this: He is the first player in ACC history to record at least 1,000 points, 800 assists, 400 rebounds and 200 steals.

If Blake doesn't finally make first-team All-ACC this season, it will be an absolute travesty. While there are plenty of fine point guards in the league, none played nearly as well as Blake this season, especially when his team needed him most.

Talented Smith Showing Flashes

Every now and then, the enormous raw talent shows through. Junior college transfer Jamar Smith is capable of the type of physically impressive play that makes even the most jaded observer say, “Wow!”

It happened a couple times during Maryland's recent destruction of North Carolina. Smith soared high to catch an alley-oop pass from Calvin McCall, snared the ball with one hand, then slammed it forcefully through the hoop. It was one of those rim-rattling dunks that draws a collective gasp from a sellout crowd. Even several NBA stars, who were in attendance at the Comcast Center, looked

impressed.

Moments later, Smith skied head and shoulders above several other players to grab a rebound from well above the rim. Fans and media were left scratching their heads and wondering: Why doesn't this 6-9, 239-pound athlete do this all the time? That's the same question coach Gary Williams and his staff have been asking all season.

Smith's spectacular moments are tempered by maddening stretches of lackluster play. In between the power dunks and sky-walking rebounds are missed picks, defensive lapses, bad passes and rushed shots. Every time it appears the light is coming on for Smith, it goes dark again. Inconsistent only begins to describe his play this season. He is averaging 5.1 points and 4.0 rebounds in 13.5 minutes of action, decent numbers but nowhere near what was expected from a juco All-American with all sorts of skills.

Teammates who watch Smith dominate practice at times don't understand it. It's as if he's a completely different player in games. Smith's eight-point, four-rebound, two-steal performance against Carolina once again fueled speculation that he's finally ready to become an inside force. Williams is waiting.

Smith has shown flashes before, only to revert to the apparently clueless player who just doesn't get it in terms of executing Maryland's offensive and defensive philosophies. Lack of effort and intensity also have hurt the Allegany Community College product at times.

“Jamar is like a lot of junior college transfers. It's taken him time to learn and understand the system, to become comfortable playing at this level,” Willliams said. “I see Jamar progressing every day. He's got the ability to be a really good player.”

Yet Williams admits frustration with Smith's slower-than-planned development. At this time last year, fellow Allegany transfer Ryan Randle had become a reliable player Williams could count on for consistent production. Smith is still a wild card.

Everyone associated with the program is hoping something will suddenly click inside Smith's head, where potential will turn into performance. He's the type of athletic big man this team is lacking, and he could make the Terps an even bigger threat at NCAA Tournament time. His development also would ease a lot of worry about next year, with Smith in line to become the starting center or power forward.

Collins Gets Moment In Spotlight

There's been considerable speculation since last season that diminutive guard Andre Collins is not going to stick it out at Maryland. Most amateur analysts have surmised that Collins will wind up transferring, most likely after this, his sophomore season.

There is plenty of evidence to back up that theory. Collins is a former high school superstar who averaged 30 points per game and once erupted for 50 at tiny Crisfield High, a Class A school on Maryland's Eastern Shore. He went head-to-head and held his own with Virginia's Keith Jenifer during their year together at Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia.

Simply put, Collins believes in his heart that he's a player. That attitude shows through on the rare occasions he gets on the court. The 5-7 guard clearly plays with confidence and has shown considerable offensive skills. He can dribble, pass and shoot at an ACC level and is without question the quickest player on the Maryland team.

Collins, understandably, believes he should be playing more. His discontent with sitting at the end of the bench game-in and game-out has been evident at times. He even has admitted to being a bit upset that freshman John Gilchrist leap-frogged him in the backcourt rotation.

Yet Williams no doubt has explained to Collins why he's been a dreaded DNP-CD (did not play-coach's decision) in 12 games this season. First and foremost, there is no denying that Collins' lack of height is a major liability on the defensive end. While he has the quickness to stay in front of opposing guards, he simply does not have the length and reach to contest shots or the size and strength to deny the drive. He is pretty much helpless whenever posted up. Collins has not played enough meaningful minutes in tight games for Williams to discover how much of a target he would become for opposing offenses. However, he's been beaten enough for baskets to raise that concern.

The biggest problem, though, is that Collins is a shooting guard trapped in an undersized point guard's body. He prefers to play off the ball, and his instincts are to shoot first and pass later. Staff members report that Collins still does not understand how to direct the flex offense and to set up others properly.

Collins played 10 minutes against North Carolina, by far his most extensive action of the season against a legitimate opponent. He played well with eight points, four steals and three assists, while working primarily against Melvin Scott and Raymond Felton. Always a crowd favorite, Collins drew loud cheers whenever he did anything positive. It's obvious that the Terps faithful would like to see Collins do well and become an integral part of the program.

Yet the Carolina game performance was deceiving, as Collins was basically playing during garbage time. The Tar Heels had been down by double digits for quite a while and were starting to give up by the time Collins entered the game. What was interesting was that his best moments came while he played off guard, with Gilchrist operating the point. That's not necessarily good news, since he projects as Gilchrist's caddy the next two seasons.

Williams is a loyal sort who undoubtedly will give Collins the first shot at the vacant backup point guard spot next season. It will be incumbent on Collins to spend the offseason improving his playmaking skills enough to handle that role.

Meanwhile, Maryland continues to recruit as if it has three scholarships to give in 2003-04, even though the current roster breakdown shows only two available. That's what leads many observers to speculate that either Collins or fellow sophomore Michael Grinnon will be hitting the road at the end of the academic year. Stay tuned.