January 15, 2008
COLLEGE PARK Give Gary Williams credit for pushing the right buttons to get the Maryland basketball team to improve its level of performance.
Williams can live with youthful mistakes and accept that certain players are capable of doing only so much. However, the veteran coach will not tolerate lack of effort, energy or intensity, and he felt those missing ingredients were most responsible for Maryland's embarrassing home losses to Ohio and American.
Williams felt the Terrapins were simply outworked by the underdog Eagles, whose last victory in the series came during the 1926-27 season. Maryland normally manhandles American in the annual matchup of D.C. area schools, and the fact that the Patriot League program controlled the contest from start to finish sent the fan base into meltdown mode.
In the wake of the shocking defeat on Dec. 22, Williams threw the players out of their cozy, comfortable locker room. Senior James Gist said the message was clear, that this year's players had to earn the right to wear the Maryland uniform.
"Coach demanded that we work harder in practice," Gist said. "He told us nobody on the team had earned anything. Everybody has kind of fell into the celebrity status of being at Maryland because Maryland has a winning tradition. We have to earn the right to be a Maryland player. We have to earn the right to be an ACC player. We have to earn the right to get a win."
By all accounts, the caliber of practices improved dramatically following the Christmas break, and the results showed on the court.
Maryland put together an impressive four-game winning streak to close its non-conference schedule, blowing out Delaware, Savannah State and Holy Cross in a manner one would expect from an ACC program. The Terrapins also went into a hostile environment at Charlotte in what set up as a "trap" game and performed with poise, building a huge first-half lead then surviving a furious rally to win 76-72.
Clearly, the key to the dramatic turnaround was defense, as the Terps played with renewed focus and effort on that end of the floor. Holy Cross, a regular NCAA Tournament qualifier under coach Ralph Willard and the favorite to repeat as Patriot League champs, probably would have shredded Maryland in December with its methodical, precise, halfcourt offense. Instead, the Terps got after the Crusaders from the get-go and completely took them out of their sets.
"If we had played Holy Cross two weeks ago, we probably would have lost," Gist said. "We are a much better team now, especially on defense. We realize we need to work hard in practice and come ready to play in games. We're just playing at a higher level."
Gist, the lone senior starter, has assumed more of a leadership role in recent weeks. The 6-8 forward was almost nonexistent before fouling out against American and realized he needed to be more assertive.
Without prompting, Gist met with Williams and promised he would play with more passion and energy. In the five games since that meeting, Gist has lived up to his promise and helped energize the team by playing with particular purpose early in games.
For the most part, Maryland performed pretty well when it resumed ACC play at Virginia Tech. After falling behind by 10 points early, the Terrapins used a 15-5 run to take a lead they maintained most of the way.
Maryland could not close out what would have been a very uplifting victory, falling 67-66 when guard Greivis Vasquez missed a three-pointer in the final seconds. However, Williams had to be pleased with the overall performance of his squad. The Terps at least looked like a team capable of winning games in the ACC, which was not the case during those late December doldrums.
It was pointed out in this space a few weeks ago that improvement was inevitable, since the Terrapins have so many sophomores and freshmen on the roster. Four of those freshmen wings Adrian Bowie and Cliff Tucker, along with centers Braxton Dupree and Shane Walker gave the Terps valuable minutes against the Hokies. Bowie was particularly impressive, scoring 12 points on 6-for-8 shooting while logging 28 minutes.
MILBOURNE STRUGGLING SO FAR
Maryland had proven returning players at four of the five positions on the floor going into this season.
Vasquez and Gist were returning starters at wing guard and power forward, respectively. Point guard Eric Hayes and center Bambale Osby also were key members of the rotation, and each started some games last season.
Clearly, the one glaring question mark about this year's team involved the small forward position. Who would step up and seize the spot left vacant by D.J. Strawberry, who had led the team in minutes played, scoring and steals?
During the offseason, it became clear that Williams was counting on sophomore Landon Milbourne to elevate his game and move into the starting lineup. Reports came routinely that Milbourne was performing extremely well in pickup games among the Terrapins, and the youngster received a big vote of confidence when Williams nominated him to play for the East Coast All-Stars on a 10-day tour through Holland and Belgium last summer.
Midway through the preseason it was obvious that Milbourne would become the fifth starter, and that notion caused some consternation among fans. After all, the Georgia native played just 77 minutes in 16 games last season, mostly in mop-up duty.
On the other hand, Milbourne fits the typical small forward mold and has all the tools to thrive in Maryland's system. The 6-7, 207-pounder is extremely athletic and a terrific leaper, described by Williams as "an inside-outside type of player" who can score in the paint or from the perimeter.
So far this season, Milbourne has shown only flashes of his reported ability to slash to the basket and shoot from beyond the arc. He ranks last among the starters with a scoring average of 7.9 points per game and is shooting a subpar 37 percent from the floor. Because the wings in Maryland's flex offense are required to knock down open jumpers, it is most disturbing that Milbourne has made just 4 of 19 attempts from three-point range.
Simply put, the Oak Hill Academy product has not proven he is ready for prime time. While Maryland has gotten about what it expected out of the other four starters, Milbourne's overall production has lagged by comparison.
Maryland desperately needs points and rebounds from its small forward, and that is why Milbourne's development is crucial. If he can grow and mature into more of a consistent contributor, it would greatly enhance the Terrapins' chances of finishing in the middle of the pack in the ACC and possibly earning an NCAA Tournament berth.
"Landon has a lot of ability and has a great mental resolve to develop into an important part of the team," Williams said. "He's only a sophomore and still has a lot to learn. He will get better as he gets more games under his belt."