February 7, 2006
COLLEGE PARK -- Every season has its defining moments. What will they be for the Maryland basketball team?
Coach Gary Williams was hoping it was the toughness and determination his team displayed in beating Georgia Tech on the road. That was the Terrapins' first outing after starting guard Chris McCray was dismissed (academics), and it appeared that the remaining players had come together with renewed focus.
Meanwhile, fans were worried that the defining moment may be an embarrassing home loss to youthful North Carolina. Maryland played one of the worst halves of basketball in recent history, while absorbing a 15-point defeat that both baffled and angered the crowd at Comcast Center.
Perhaps the Terps will score another impressive road victory or upset Duke on Feb. 11 in College Park, but for now the loss to the Tar Heels stands out as the game that strongly stated the course of this season.
Watching Maryland bumble its way through a miserable second half, it was impossible for anyone in attendance -- fans, sportswriters or Williams -- to feel upbeat about this team's chances of making the NCAA Tournament. In fact, the UNC loss led many to the conclusion that these Terps just aren't that good.
Williams blamed lack of intensity and effort, saying afterward, "I was disgusted with the way we competed." Yet those intangibles do not fully explain Maryland's deficiencies, which were on full display against the Tar Heels. Sloppy ball-handling, poor shooting and subpar defensive execution have been problems for two seasons now, and Williams can't seem to correct them with the current personnel.
Prior to playing N.C. State on the road, Williams addressed one season-long weakness that has proven to be particularly bothersome: defending the three-point shot. Temple and Carolina each drained nine three-pointers against the Terps, joining a long list of Maryland opponents that have found success beyond the arc. Williams said the keys to stopping the threes involve anticipation, positioning and technique.
"You have to identify the guys who are spotting up," Williams said, "and go out high with your hand up, so they don't get a good look at the basket."
Maryland obviously has practiced three-point defense numerous times, but it has gotten no better during the season and ranks 10th in the ACC in that category.
Privately, some Maryland coaches admit that the collective "basketball IQ" on this squad is not very high. There are just too many players who lack the proper instincts and just don't have a solid understanding of the game. Mike Jones, Ekene Ibekwe and James Gist would top that list.
It also has become painfully obvious that Maryland is not a very skilled basketball squad. The basic acts of dribbling, passing and catching often are an adventure for the Terps, who are averaging 18 turnovers per game.
Jones is a walking turnover, thanks largely to the fact that he simply cannot dribble and is a very lackadaisical passer. Ibekwe and Gist both have hands of stone, while D.J. Strawberry does not have anywhere near the handle required to play point guard.
"Let's face it," Williams said matter-of-factly. "We're just not a very good ball-handling team."
That's a problem for a program that runs the flex, an offense that relies on crisp passing and requires all five players on the court to handle the ball. For the past two seasons, it has become commonplace for Maryland to endure lengthy offensive droughts, which usually result from abandoning the offense.
It was more of the same against Carolina, as Maryland went four minutes without a field goal during a decisive stretch early in the second half. The Terps scored just 22 points in the entire second half, as the offense devolved into individuals going one-on-one.
"We didn't run our offense the whole night," Williams said. "We didn't work to get open shots, and when we got easy shots we didn't make them."
BAD SHOOTING, INTENSITY, RECRUITING
Shooting is another sore subject with these Terps.
Jones is the only reliable three-point shooter, while Travis Garrison is the most accurate mid-range shooter. Nik Caner-Medley is a mixed bag, capable of knocking down open outside shots yet missing badly on most that are challenged. No one else on the team could be considered an above-average jump shooter. Some, especially Gist and Strawberry, would have to be judged as very poor.
That's a far cry from the Terps' back-to-back Final Four teams, which were filled with players who could knock down open shots.
Maryland's shooting during the awful second half against Carolina was downright pathetic. Caner-Medley, Ibekwe and Gist took turns heaving up attempts that had no chance of going into the basket. Some clanged wildly off the rim or caromed off the backboard.
Listen carefully to the comments Williams made after the Carolina loss, and it's obvious that he doesn't particularly like this dysfunctional contingent of players. All of the basic characteristics that have come to define Maryland basketball -- toughness, tenacity, intensity, etc. -- have been lacking over the past two seasons. Williams, who has prided himself on developing teams that share the basketball, play rugged defense and compete for 40 minutes, clearly is frustrated by his inability to instill those traits in these players.
However, the harsh truth is that Williams must accept much of the blame for the current state of affairs. Maryland has a roster filled with players who have not lived up to expectations, have not developed and don't fit the system. Williams is ultimately responsible for recruiting those players, and he must accept the blame for the mistakes that were made.
Truth be told, the type of talent Maryland has brought in since winning the national championship in 2002 is truly disappointing. One would think the Terps' success would be a recruiting boon, yet Williams has not signed a single top-10 player and very few that were rated in the top 25.
It has been pointed out in this space many times that the much-ballyhooed recruiting class of John Gilchrist, McCray, Garrison and Caner-Medley has been an incredible disappointment. That quartet was followed in 2003 by the quintet of Ibekwe, Strawberry, Jones, Bowers and Hassan Fofana, which has not produced any real standouts. Gist and junior college guard Sterling Ledbetter arrived in 2004, while power forward David Neal and junior college guard Parrish Brown showed up this season.
Simply put, Maryland has a team filled with a bunch of role players, all of whom have noticeable weaknesses. No one on the current roster is likely to make first- or second-team All-ACC or play in the NBA. Given those facts, perhaps it's no wonder that Maryland's program has taken a significant step backward.