December 5, 2006
COLLEGE PARK -- You have to give Gary Williams credit for confronting and addressing the problems that have plagued his program.
After back-to-back unwanted appearances in the NIT, Williams knew that Maryland basketball needed a makeover. The staples of the program -- hard-nosed defense, unselfish offense, gritty determination, passionate effort -- had vanished. No one was more displeased than Williams with the way the Terps played the past two seasons.
In the end, most of the problems revolved around one thing -- the attitude of the players. Maryland's recently departed senior class, which originally included John Gilchrist, Chris McCray, Travis Garrison and Nik Caner-Medley, just never truly bought into Maryland basketball.
With that group leading the way, the Terps lacked the cohesiveness and chemistry that are so crucial to winning on a consistent basis in the highly competitive world of the ACC.
Williams wasn't blind. He knew his 2004-05 and 2005-06 teams were deficient in the vital areas of passing, rebounding and defense, the elements of basketball that are based as much on desire as on talent. A player must want to pass, want to rebound and want to defend in order to succeed.
Maryland needed to bring in a large recruiting class this year to replace the aforementioned group. In putting together that class, Williams instructed his assistants to look hard for intangibles, in addition to talent.
Those newcomers (see pages 14-15) have brought an unselfish, team-first attitude. They have infused the program with the emotion, energy, passion and intensity that were sorely lacking.
Just as Williams had hoped, the newcomers even have made an impact on the veterans. Underachievers such as Ekene Ibekwe, James Gist and Mike Jones seem to be embracing the new approach.
Williams was so determined to make chemistry and cohesiveness the primary goals that he joked in the preseason that he looked up "synergy" in the dictionary because he expects to use that word so often this season.
KEYS: DEFENSE, BALL MOVEMENT
Last season's squad played the worst defense of Williams' 18-year tenure at Maryland. The Terps ranked last in the ACC in scoring defense, giving up 73.5 points per game.
The Terps were particularly poor in defending the three-pointer, allowing opponents to shoot 37 percent from beyond the arc. It was maddening for Maryland fans to see perimeter defenders repeatedly double-down on the post, only to have the ball kicked out for wide-open treys.
There is no question that Maryland's defense has been 100 percent better this season. The Terps are giving up 62 points per game, while harassing teams into 35 percent shooting from the field.
Williams will tell you that the root of the defensive improvement lies in pure effort. However, the other key has been better interior defense led by Ibekwe, Gist and juco transfer Bambale Osby. Their ability to handle opposing post players one-on-one has kept the guards from having to help out.
Gist and Ibekwe have combined for 37 blocked shots, while Osby has used his wide body and strength to push the other team's primary post threat further away from the basket.
It is no coincidence that Maryland is much better at defending the three this season, limiting opponents to a mere 24 percent shooting from long range.
"Our big guys have been playing solid defense down low and getting a lot of blocks," senior swingman D.J. Strawberry said. "It allows us not to really help that much on the post and have them kick it out for wide-open threes. We've been able to control the paint, which has been a big part of our defense this year, which allows the guards to kind of stick around a little bit closer to our man so they don't get open threes."
Another key element is that freshman guards Eric Hayes and Greivis Vasquez are very solid backcourt defenders, combining size and quickness to harass opposing ball-handlers and three-point shooters. The emergence of the rookies has allowed Strawberry to move back to his natural position on the wing, where he is much more effective at both ends.
Strawberry has a team-high 20 steals this season, because he's no longer playing on the ball and therefore can work the passing lanes better. Hayes, Parrish Brown and even Jones all have eight steals for the Terps, who are averaging 8.3 per game in that department and forcing nearly 20 turnovers per game.
"A team might go through stretches when it doesn't run good offense and score points, but your defense can always be there," Williams said. "Our defense really showed up against Illinois and carried us for a while when we couldn't score. We had a long offensive drought, but our defense kept us in the game. Hopefully, our players understand that if you play good defense you have a chance to win most games."
Another problem for the Terps in recent years came when they devolved into a team that did not share the ball very well. It began in 2004-05, when Gilchrist dribbled too much and looked for his own shot too often, sometimes leaving his teammates with little choice but to stand around and watch.
It may have been worse last season. Maryland did not have a natural point guard, so the offense often stalled from the outset. That 2005-06 squad was just plain bad at ball-handling, subpar in that area at every position.
Jones was a wing guard who could barely dribble and threw crazy passes. Gist and Ibekwe were interior players with hands of stone and an inability to kick the ball back out. Caner-Medley, who often put his head down and tried to drive the ball to the basket, also was not very proficient at drawing and dishing. Factor in that Strawberry was in over his head in terms of trying to dribble under pressure while running the offense, and it was just an all-around disaster.
It's a completely different story this season. Hayes and Vasquez are very solid ball-handlers who take care of the basketball and love to pass.
Not surprisingly, that pass-first mentality has become infectious. Suddenly, everyone on the team is looking for the open man and trying to make the extra pass. That leads to more high-percentage shots.
"When you've got one or two guys who can really pass the basketball, that puts pressure on everyone to become a better passer," Williams said. "I think we're more unselfish this season, and that's been refreshing for me to see."
Maryland is averaging 18.5 assists this season, up about three per game from a year ago. The Terps are shooting 48 percent from the field and averaging 81 points, both significant improvements over last season.