January 27, 2003 COLLEGE PARK In mid-January, Maryland looked like a flawed team plummeting quickly to on-the-bubble status. The Terrapins were sitting at nine wins, none of which could be viewed as particularly special by the NCAA selection committee. They were 0-4 against ranked teams and had yet to win on the road.
When some looked at the remaining schedule, they found it hard to project Maryland with more than 17 or 18 victories. A non-conference game against Loyola brought the Terps to 10 wins, but with only six ACC home games remaining, it was hard to find the other eight or nine victories it would take to guarantee a 10th straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
What a difference a week made. In the span of eight days, Maryland erased all sorts of doubts about its abilities and established itself as the most impressive team in the ACC. A rout of top-ranked Duke at Comcast Center restored the team's swagger, which had been missing for most of the season. It was a more confident and assured squad that overwhelmed North Carolina in Chapel Hill, then had the mental toughness to fight through a sloppy performance to edge Clemson on the road.
Suddenly, Maryland was leading the league, and any concerns about getting to 20 victories gave way to thoughts of how deep this team could go into March Madness.
Once again, coach Gary Williams deserves credit for pushing all of the right buttons to get these Terrapins turned around. He decided to go with a veteran starting lineup, replacing freshmen Travis Garrison and Nik Caner-Medley with seniors Tahj Holden and Calvin McCall. He also altered the rotation, giving athletic junior college transfer Jamar Smith and confident freshman John Gilchrist the bulk of reserve minutes in the frontcourt and backcourt, respectively.
Maryland's depth and diverse talent are strengths, but Williams decided to stop trying so hard to divvy up the minutes among nine players every game. Who played and how much was going to be determined by matchups and performance.
Garrison, who had struggled mightily since replacing Holden as the starter at power forward, did not get off the bench against Duke and played just two minutes versus Carolina. Williams was sending the McDonald's All-American a message, and it came through loud and clear. Garrison got another chance against Clemson and came through with a solid game, scoring seven points (converting three of five field goal attempts) and working harder than he had in other games.
In many respects, the seeds of Maryland's sudden turnaround were sown in the Wake Forest loss. A bench led by Gilchrist, Smith and McCall brought the Terps back from a 17-point deficit and gave Williams the idea of going in a different direction in terms of rotation. It was Maryland's first ACC road game, and Williams saw who stepped up and played with confidence and who didn't.
Better yet, perhaps, the team showed the toughness and attitude that has come to be associated with the program. Technicals on Williams and Blake, and the latter's confrontation with Wake players afterward, reinforced the growing idea that Maryland never goes down without a fight. The Terps aren't always pretty, but they're still tough to beat.
McCall: Little Things Mean A Lot
So much for the prediction that Calvin McCall would not be starting once the ACC wars began. That statement was written in this space earlier this season, and initially it came true. Caner-Medley replaced McCall as the starting small forward in late December, and most figured the former walk-on would steadily see his minutes decrease further.
McCall, a senior, had other ideas. The muscular 6-3, 210-pounder was terrific against Florida State, even playing power forward for long stretches and doing a monster job on the boards. He really opened eyes with his performance against Wake Forest, scoring 10 points, grabbing four rebounds and playing with the type of energy and passion the team lacked all season. It would not be a stretch to say that McCall was the team's best player that night. The former starting quarterback returned to the starting lineup the following game and may remain there for the duration of the season.
Cal is that one guy who is constantly making that tough play, senior guard Drew Nicholas said. If we need a big rebound, he's in there fighting for it. He's one of those guys you would call an X factor. He does so many things that don't necessarily show up in the stats. We know how important he is to our team.
It was vindication for McCall, who devoted himself fully to basketball during the offseason and was determined to earn serious playing time. He readily admits to being bothered by the fact that both media and fans so readily dismissed him.
I think I did have something to prove this year, said McCall, who was averaging 5.4 points and 3.6 rebounds in 17 minutes a game. We had these top-100 and top-50 recruits coming in, and it was kind of like I was overlooked. Maryland had four starters coming back, and one of the freshmen was going to be the fifth starter.
There is nothing flashy about McCall's game. Think of Byron Mouton from the previous two Maryland teams, minus Mouton's tendency to score in streaks. McCall is quick and athletic enough to play small forward, strong enough to occasionally post up opponents as an emergency power forward, versatile enough to be a utility player on offense or defense.
Against North Carolina, McCall scored seven points, grabbed six rebounds and drew more plaudits from Williams after doing a solid job defensively against freshman sensation Rashad McCants.
Calvin gets that rebound, makes that steal, gives us a lift. He's played more than I thought he would play this year, Williams said. He's earned his way in there. He has no fear. He knows his game, and he knows our offense. He's more of a basketball player this year. He was just a great athlete before that.
Williams hasn't been subtle in pointing out that Garrison and Caner-Medley could take a lesson from watching the way McCall plays the game. The two highly touted freshmen have been tentative at times, failing to compete with the all-out aggressiveness necessary to succeed in the ACC. They combined for four points and zero rebounds in the loss to Wake.
Rebounding became a major focal point after the Demon Deacons killed the Terps in that department. Starting center Ryan Randle got the message and responded with 17 boards against Duke. Garrison didn't get a chance to show he could do better, while Caner-Medley managed only one rebound in that game. That explains why Caner-Medley joined Garrison on the pine despite scoring eight points (including a pair of crucial three-pointers) versus the Blue Devils. The high-flying lefty played only two minutes (same as Garrison) at North Carolina.
Williams made his position clear. If you're a forward, you'd better rebound, or you won't play. McCall, more than anyone else, was listening.
Gilchrist Brings Energy, Toughness
Meanwhile, Gilchrist was just terrific for much of January. In the process, he continued to prove himself as a worthy successor to Blake as the hard-nosed, highly competitive point guard Maryland fans have grown to love.
As noted earlier, Gilchrist led the comeback at Wake pushing the ball up the floor relentlessly, breaking down the defense with dribble penetration and playing tough defense. He had eight points and a couple of steals that led directly to fastbreak layups.
Gilchrist also made some huge plays while cramming six points and three assists into 10 energy-filled minutes versus Duke. He whipped the Comcast Center crowd into a frenzy by hustling down-court to poke the ball away from an opponent from behind, then recover and send a great pass ahead for a layup.
It was Gilchrist who directed the team during a crucial stretch of the second half in Chapel Hill. He out-played more touted freshman Raymond Felton at times, beating him off the dribble on three occasions and getting to the basket for layups.
Gilchrist is cocky, flashy and talks a lot of smack. It was that behavior that led him and Blake to get into a fight during a summer pickup game. Yet the precocious frosh gradually has endeared himself to the steady senior by displaying the same never-back-down attitude that has come to define Blake's career.