May 5, 2003 COLLEGE PARK Coach Gary Williams has all but announced that next year's Maryland basketball team will be returning to the press-and-run style he prefers, and several pro-Maryland media outlets have hailed this as a wonderful development that will produce a more exciting brand of ball.
More analytical minds might ask a few questions: (1) Is this change by necessity or choice? (2) Does it signify progress or regression? (3) Will Maryland win more games and go deeper in the NCAA Tournament as a result?
For fans, the thought of Maryland going up and down the court with a never-ending string of athletes making steals and throwing down dunks is appealing. That type of basketball certainly is fun to watch when it's working.
Therein lies the key. When a press-and-run team isn't creating turnovers and turning them into easy baskets, it quickly becomes ordinary. Williams should know this better than anyone, since he saw so many of his early Maryland teams falter in the NCAA Tournament when games became slow-paced, half-court affairs.
There was no better example than the 1998-99 team, which featured by far the best collection of athletes Williams has ever assembled in College Park. With the high-flying duo of Steve Francis and Laron Profit leading the way, Maryland pressed many opponents into submission. That season was a seemingly never-ending string of steals, dunks and spectacular plays, as the Terps set a school record with 28 victories. Yet that team also remains a major disappointment to Williams and fans for not advancing beyond the Sweet 16.
In what proved a truly significant moment for the program, Maryland was bullied all over Thompson-Bolling Arena by a bigger, stronger St. John's squad led by the mean and nasty Ron Artest. With point guard Erick Barkley taking good care of the ball, the Red Storm turned the game into a half-court grinder and used their physical dominance to overpower the Terps. Who can ever forget Artest breaking Terence Morris in half with a forearm shiver early in the game, purposefully sending a message that caused the timid sophomore to shrink like a violet the rest of the way. Profit and point guard Terrell Stokes never could shoot, Francis wasn't hitting his jumper that night, and Maryland didn't have enough inside muscle (or aggressiveness) to get offensive rebounds.
The result was a 76-63 pummeling that led Williams to do some serious soul-searching. It was only after the St. John's game that the program hired a full-time strength and conditioning coordinator to toughen up the Terps. The coach also made the decision to play a different type of basketball. At the time, the Sports Journal was among the publications that applauded Williams for recognizing what it takes to win in March and altering his program accordingly.
Williams essentially sacrificed athleticism for skills, replaced run-jump athletes with shooters and bangers, and exchanged full-court pressure for half-court bump-and-grind. Maryland may have become a less exciting team to watch at times, but the results were historic. Led by the lethal inside-outside combination of Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter, the Terps made back-to-back Final Four appearances and captured the program's first national championship.
That blue-collar collection of Terps scored points the hard way: They earned them. Instead of relying on steals to create easy layups, Dixon, Baxter, Steve Blake and Bryon Mouton played lockdown defense that held teams to record-low shooting percentages. The same players then ran crisp, efficient offense to get open shots, which they converted with great accuracy.
All of which brings us back to the original point, and it seems appropriate to pull out that famous quote: He who does not learn from the past is doomed to repeat it.
Judging from Williams' comments to beat reporters following Maryland's ouster from this year's NCAA Tournament, he believes an upgrade in athleticism will allow him to once again employ full-court pressure and play up-tempo. There is no denying the Terps will have athletes in 2003-04, as virtually every member of the projected rotation has above-average speed and quicks for his position.
Yet one gets the feeling Williams is trying to sell a party line that this is a good thing, when in fact he is returning to press-and-run to mask potential half-court deficiencies. For the first time in nearly a decade, Maryland may not have a legitimate low-post threat.
With Joe Smith, Obinna Ekezie, Baxter and Ryan Randle following in one another's footsteps, the Terps always had a big man comfortable playing with his back to the basket and capable of scoring on the low blocks. Unless Jamar Smith or Travis Garrison makes a dramatic change in offensive ability, or incoming freshmen Will Bowers and Hassan Fofana develop much more quickly than expected, there will not be a true pivot in the lineup.
Furthermore, the Terps once again could be devoid of pure shooters on the wings, as sophomore Chris McCray and incoming freshman Mike Jones must prove they can knock down three-pointers as consistently as Dixon or Drew Nicholas. Remember that the Terps also have had some frontcourt players who could shoot, notably Morris and Tahj Holden. Likely starting small forward Caner-Medley has not proven a reliable perimeter shooter, while Garrison and Smith would be wise to confine their jumpers to within 15 feet.
As Williams surveys the roster, he sees players who would seem to excel in the press-and-run style he shelved for several seasons. With a bench that should go at least 10 deep, there would be less concern over taking a team with tired legs into tournament time, which was a criticism in the past.
It should be noted that a major reason why Maryland did not press much the past three seasons is because Williams did not have the type of personnel capable of doing so. Obviously, the ideal situation is to find players who are both athletic and skilled, who are equally adept at scoring in transition or out of the set offense. That's not easy.
Numerous Duke teams of the recent past have possessed that rare ability to go up- or down-tempo, but at Maryland it's usually been one or the other. Perhaps Williams finally has been able to land the type of top-tier talent that can overwhelm opponents with his signature press-and-run, yet still run effective half-court offense whenever necessary.
Only time will tell.
Local Forwards Get Early Offers
One interesting conclusion Williams and his staff came to in the wake of this past season is that Maryland must become more athletic along the front line. Watching earth-bound widebodies such as Holden and Randle get repeatedly out-jumped for rebounds led the Terps to make landing leapers a priority. Unfortunately, Bowers and Fofana don't fit the bill.
However, Maryland has made local forwards James Gist and Rudy Gay two of its top targets for the Class of 2004. Both are long-armed, pogo-stick-like leapers capable of grabbing rebounds above the rim.
Williams recently extended scholarship offers to Gist and Gay, who both are in the 6-8 range but project as a power forward and small forward, respectively. The Terps have not yet put any other offers on the table, which means combination guard Isaiah Swann (a long-time target who consistently lists Maryland as his favorite) and many others remain on hold.