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Youthful Roster Offers Williams Tough, Familiar Challenge

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

  By Gary Lambrecht
Baltimore (Md.) Sun

November 17, 2003 COLLEGE PARK — One year after seeing so many places he fantasized about experiencing as a high school player, Maryland sophomore point guard John Gilchrist said the fun is over. A year after serving as Steve Blake's backup and collecting limited minutes, Gilchrist must set the tone, run the offense, lead the team. Gilchrist is not the only youngster assigned to carry on a winning tradition that has become ingrained in College Park. He is merely a symbol of the youngest team Gary Williams has handled during his 15 years at Maryland, which has become a perennial NCAA Tournament team and an ACC power over the past decade.

“Last year, I felt like a tourist in the ACC. You see all of the places you dreamed about playing in,” Gilchrist said. “This year, you go in with a different mindset. I'm here to win games, not sight-see or play around. It's more business-oriented.”

The Terps have much business to attack, much to uphold. Maryland has produced seven consecutive 20-victory seasons, qualified for 10 consecutive national tournaments, gone to seven Sweet 16 rounds and back-to-back Final Fours over that stretch. The program is barely 18 months removed from winning its first NCAA title.

Now, the slate is strikingly clean. In April 2002, the Terps celebrated their crown largely because of the talent and guile of seniors Juan Dixon, Lonny Baxter and Byron Mouton. Counting redshirt years, that trio represented 14 seasons of experience. Last year, Maryland started four seniors every night and sometimes five.

The Terps, who began this season unranked for the first time since 1999, have a whole new face in 2003.

The only players with more than two seasons under their belt are juniors Andre Collins and Mike Grinnon, who have barely been on the court. The other 11 players, including senior forward/center Jamar Smith, a juco transfer, have no more than one year of Division I experience.

The heart of the Terps lies in its freshmen and sophomores, all nine of them. Among the second-year players, Gilchrist and forward Nik Caner-Medley, who started 18 games a year ago, bring the most seasoning. Then there is the five-man incoming class that needs to grow up quickly to keep Maryland in the hunt.

Guards Mike Jones and D.J. Strawberry and power forward Ebene Ibekwe look like the best of the crop, although massive center Hassan Fofana, a 6-10, 290-pound behemoth, is projected as a solid contributor before long.

How's this for inexperience? The leading scorers returning are Smith and Caner-Medley, who each averaged 5.9 points per game.

What a contrast for Williams. Two seasons ago, he was essentially managing great talent and keeping a hungry Maryland team on course with history. Now, he is back to breaking things down to their basic elements in practice, trying to piece together a rotation of eight or nine players, finding out who can score and play defense, who can post up effectively, who can shoot.

“You realize the task at hand. We're going to have to overcome a complete lack of experience. No matter how talented guys are, we've got five guys that have never played a college game,” said Williams, entering his 26th season as a head coach. “It's interesting. It's different. It's good for me. You might get into a rut. This grabs your attention, because you realize we're going to have to do a lot to get competitive in a hurry. My biggest concern is how are we going to score 80 points a game?”

This is not the first time Williams has guided such a youthful Maryland squad. His 1993-94 team featured freshmen Joe Smith and Keith Booth and sophomores Johnny Rhodes, Exree Hipp and Duane Simpkins as starters. That bunch, behind Smith, started Maryland's NCAA Tournament run and advanced to the Sweet 16.

Then came the 1999-2000 team, led by a freshman named Blake, and sophomores Dixon, Baxter and Danny Miller. That group lost its first three conference games, bounced back to finish second in the ACC regular season, lost to Duke in the conference tournament final, then lost in the second round of the NCAAs.

Williams thinks, from top to bottom, this is his most inexperienced group ever. He also thinks he has never been blessed with this much young talent.

Look for Maryland to be a pressing, run-and-gun type of team that rebounds and runs down loose balls effectively and hopes to find a consistent half-court offense born of patient passing, dependable shooters and interchangeable parts.

“We're going to have to be creative in how we play, get points off our defense, be a very good free throw shooting team,” Williams said. “You don't have to run perfect offense to score. We could use a lot of different combinations.”

If there is a single key, it might be Gilchrist. He proved he could impact games coming off the bench as a freshman, with his ability to create turnovers and break defenses down with penetration. He should get nearly 30 minutes per game.

He leads a backcourt that looks deep. Sophomore Chris McCray, 6-5, faded badly a year ago but might be the most improved player among the returnees. Jones was the second-ranked shooting guard behind a guy named LeBron James on numerous recruiting lists. He also can play the wing, might have the best jump shot on the team already and loves to pass and rebound. Strawberry already is working at both guard slots and on the wing and is the most accomplished defensive player in the class. Collins can play either guard slot but is better suited for the point at 5-9.

Finding a true post player in the frontcourt could be a chore for Williams, who does not have a lot of confidence in sophomore Travis Garrison. Garrison was not much of an inside presence as a freshman, despite getting a chance to start early.

That means Smith, Fofana and Ibekwe have to produce in some combination. Fofana is raw. Smith is the best leaper on the team, a double-double waiting to happen if he's consistent enough to earn at least 25 minutes per game. Ibekwe is a lean 6-9, maybe not physically suited for the power forward spot yet, but the Terps will look for him to rebound and score down low.

Caner-Medley, 6-8, is the closest thing to a true small forward. He showed the ability to drive to the basket as a freshman. Now he needs to shoot with more confidence and rebound and play defense more consistently. He is fully recovered from a dislocated ankle he suffered in Maryland's NCAA Tournament loss to Michigan State.

“All this team can do is play hard and get better game by game,” Caner-Medley said. “When you have a team with so many young guys, there's going to have to be different people who step up every night.”

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