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Williams Tinkering With Unique Roster

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

December 2, 2002 COLLEGE PARK — It's always interesting to watch a team evolve, develop and take shape. Maryland has one of the deepest, most talented basketball teams of the Gary Williams era. There are 11 solid players, all of whom could make a case for playing time. Yet this team remains a work in progress, a raw gem of sorts that must be polished to reach its full potential.

Point guard Steve Blake is the only one of five returning veterans still in the same role as last season. Meanwhile, Williams is trying to work five newcomers and one former benchwarmer into the mix. The good news is that Maryland always has five talented, athletic players on the floor. The bad news at this point is that the Terrapins often look disorganized and disjointed.

It has been a while since Williams confronted this type of situation. Since 1993-94, Maryland has enjoyed a rare level of stability. A major reason the Terps have made nine straight appearances in the NCAA Tournament is that, for most of that time, Williams has needed to replace only one or two starters per year.

In fact, 1996-97 and 1999-2000 were the only seasons in which the Terps suffered major turnover. Yet in each case, Williams had players who had been groomed to step into specific roles in the starting lineup. Forward Keith Booth was the lone returning starter in 1996, but Obinna Ekezie had started the final 18 games of the previous season at center. Point guard Terrell Stokes, small forward Laron Profit and wing guard Sarunas Jasikevicius had been the primary backups at their respective positions.

Similarly, forward Terence Morris was the only holdover from the starting lineup in 1999, but center Lonny Baxter had started the final 10 games of 1998. Wing guard Juan Dixon and small forward Danny Miller also had received extensive playing time and understood that they would be expected to start the following year.

Things weren't nearly as clear coming into this season. All that was truly set in stone was that Blake would be the point guard and senior Drew Nicholas would play on the wing. Three games into the regular season, the starting five and overall rotation remained wide-open.

Part of the problem was that, unlike in past years, there weren't obvious replacements waiting in the wings. This year's roster lacked a true small forward and a back-to-the-basket post player. As a result, Williams was forced to fit some square pegs into round holes.

Tahj Holden was asked to play on the low block, when he clearly is more comfortable on the wing. The early results were not encouraging, as Holden was a non-factor on offense and averaged three points through three games. Ryan Randle, like Holden, is a far more dangerous scorer when facing the basket. He at least has shown an ability to receive an entry pass, then make a move to get off his shot. Randle scored 15 and 16 points in two of the initial three games.

Meanwhile, former football quarterback Calvin McCall is starting at small forward, simply because Williams hasn't found a better alternative. McCall plays hard-nosed defense, and he rebounds and passes well. He also understands the flex offense. Basically, he's the Terps' best option because he makes fewer mistakes than anyone else. Never mind that McCall is only 6-3 and virtually no scoring threat.

Nobody expects McCall to still be starting once the ACC wars begin in earnest come January, but so far no one else has proven more worthy. It's almost painful watching freshman forward Nik Caner-Medley operate offensively. He has no confidence in his jumper and double-clutches instead of going straight up when confronted on the way to the basket. He's a great talent, but he needs lots of work.

The good news is that Maryland looks like a team that will play tough defense while finding itself offensively. Miami-Ohio, Citadel and Duquesne all were held under 50 points by the Terps, who have been equally stifling in half-court and full-court sets.

It was apparent early that Williams will have this squad pressing much more than last season. The coach apparently foresaw the current half-court struggles and thus returned to his roots of creating points off turnovers.

“The thing we had last year was that we could score,” Williams said. “We didn't have to use defense to score. We have to see if this year we have the same firepower. What I have seen so far is that we have the depth and athleticism to apply good pressure.”

Football Battled Through Defeat

Give Ralph Friedgen credit for stepping up and shouldering the blame for Maryland's stunning 48-13 loss to Virginia. Instead of pointing out the poor performances of certain players or the team's many mistakes that dismal day in Charlottesville, Friedgen simply chalked the embarrassing result up to his failure to properly prepare the Terps.

Friedgen, in an honest effort to raise the bar for the rivalry game, ran some intense practices several players likened to those held during August two-a-days. There was a lot of hitting, a lot of scrimmaging ones against ones, and the workouts were longer than usual for late in the season. His tired team suffered.

On the one hand, Friedgen deserves credit for embracing Virginia as Maryland's rival. While previous coaches have tried to downplay the border war, Friedgen has gone out of his way to pump up the Cavaliers as the Terps' most hated opponent.

While there has never been any love lost between fans of the two schools, things have heated up on the football front in recent years, thanks to some nasty recruiting battles. Friedgen took rivalry week a step further this year when he banned a team manager from attending practice, after learning that she was dating Virginia tailback Marquis Weeks.

When one Maryland player asked if that move wasn't a bit much, Friedgen had a good comeback: “I asked him, ëIf your girlfriend was a manager at Virginia, wouldn't she tell you what they were doing?' His response was that he would probably make her tell. So I told him, ëSon, I rest my case.'”

Friedgen and the rest of the Maryland staff became even more fired up after hearing that Virginia was motivated by fake bulletin board material. Several Cavaliers told the media they were angry about a comment attributed to Friedgen. The quote: “We should always beat the Dukes and Virginias.”

Of course, Friedgen never actually made that statement, at least not in front of any media members. Somebody, presumably a Virginia coach, made up that quote and attributed it to Friedgen. As it turned out, a Florida State receiver had said something similar in response to a question about his teams' dominating victory over Virginia.

Maryland quickly responded by putting forth a complete effort against Wake Forest, dominating the visitors on both sides of the ball in racing to a commanding 27-0 halftime lead. So impressive were the Terps that Peach Bowl president Gary Stokan extended his game's bid to athletic director Debbie Yow in the press box during the game, and the deal was done by the final whistle.

It was a nice touch that Stokan, Friedgen and Yow could ascend a podium hurriedly brought onto the field afterward and announce to fans that Maryland was officially headed for the Peach Bowl. Stokan went a bit overboard when he called Maryland “the best team in the ACC,” but he made a lot of sense when detailing his top 10 reasons why the match made sense.

Friedgen still has name recognition in Atlanta, from his extended time at Georgia Tech. The Terps remain attractive as a result of last January's Orange Bowl appearance, their strong 2002 finish (winning nine of 10 games) and the name recognition (especially linebacker E.J. Henderson) that comes with eight first-team All-ACC selections.

Ultimately, however, Stokan admitted that the decisive factor was that Maryland sold 24,000 tickets for last year's Orange Bowl and 18,000 for this year's Kickoff Classic. Yow committed to moving at least 20,000 tickets to the Peach Bowl.

“It does make a difference if your team travels well,” Stokan said. “Maryland has proven it can bring a lot of fans on the road.”

Oh, what a difference a decade makes. This is the same Maryland that couldn't get a bowl bid despite a 6-5 record in 1995, because of a reputation for being a school that didn't put enough fannies in the seats.