February 6, 2007
COLLEGE PARK Just as many fans and media were ready to bury the Maryland basketball team, there suddenly were signs of life.
Desperately in need of a win to close the first half of the ACC schedule, Maryland showed some spark in beating Wake Forest in Winston-Salem.
So what if the Demon Deacons are young, inexperienced and dead-last in the league, it was a huge win for a Maryland squad that was reeling and on the brink of early elimination from NCAA Tournament consideration.
It was Maryland's initial road victory versus a conference opponent this season and made up for an embarrassing home loss to Miami in January. The Terrapins began the second half of the conference slate with a 3-5 mark but will play five of their final eight contests at home.
If Maryland can protect its home court not an easy task, considering that North Carolina and Duke are coming to the Comcast Center it can finish with an 8-8 mark in the ACC, which might be good enough for an NCAA bid.
Inconsistency has been the one reliable characteristic of this ballclub, so coach Gary Williams has no idea whether the Terps can sustain whatever confidence and momentum were derived from the win over Wake.
"In our situation, you're simply looking for confidence," said Williams, whose team went into Lawrence Joel Coliseum having lost three of four. "That's probably the biggest benefit of this victory. ... It gives us confidence again."
Many fans were growing frustrated with Williams because of his apparent refusal to acknowledge that something was amiss with the program. Maryland had been unable to put together a complete effort, performing poorly on offense in absorbing losses to Miami (22.4 percent field goal shooting) and Virginia Tech (35.5 percent) while breaking down on defense in suffering defeats to Virginia (103 points) and Florida State (96).
Through it all, the Terps looked like a team that lacked any semblance of chemistry or cohesion. Three-quarters of the way through the season, Williams still was tinkering with the rotation, divvying up the minutes differently from game to game in hopes of finding the right combinations.
While Maryland floundered without any clear direction or signature playing style, Williams continued to insist that there was nothing wrong and that the fans merely were panicking. His comment that "we'll be fine if we continue to play like this," after the Terps managed just 64 points in an overtime loss to Virginia Tech, sent the message boards into a frenzy and even drew the ridicule of Baltimore Sun columnist Rick Maese.
It was as if Williams was beginning to accept mediocrity, while failing to grasp the fact that his program has slipped significantly since capturing the national championship in 2002.
Loyal fans would like to hear the 18th-year head coach state emphatically that Maryland's performance against ACC opponents this season is unacceptable and that major changes will be forthcoming if things don't improve.
Of course, it's Williams' job to maintain an even keel and a rational approach, but his "all-is-well" refrain was curious at best and comical at worst.
ROOKIE GUARDS PROVIDE OPTIONS
The Sports Journal and many others have posed the question of whether Maryland executes better with Greivis Vasquez or Eric Hayes at point guard. Time has shown that the Terps may operate most smoothly when the two freshmen are in the game at the same time.
Having, in essence, two point guards on the court at once results in better ball movement and fewer turnovers. Of course, using Hayes and Vasquez together means that Williams must sit either Mike Jones or D.J. Strawberry.
What happened against Wake Forest may prove to be the model for the rest of the season. Jones started, but he played only 20 minutes, two fewer than Hayes got off the bench. Meanwhile, Vasquez saw 32 minutes, second-most on the team behind Strawberry.
Hayes had a strong all-around game, scoring 12 points and dishing off three assists. Vasquez had an off night offensively, but he contributed five assists and four rebounds.
Jones, on the other hand, went scoreless on
0-for-4 shooting, while committing two turnovers and providing just one assist and two rebounds. The bottom line is that Jones still does not offer much beyond scoring. If the senior swingman's outside shot isn't falling, he is a liability because of his inferior ball-handling and defense.
Hayes and Vasquez both are head and shoulders above Jones in the aforementioned categories and quite capable of providing scoring punch. Both youngsters are reliable perimeter shooters, with accuracy to three-point range.
Meanwhile, Strawberry's apparent insistence that he is the No. 1 scoring option and needs to carry the team offensively is absurd and needs to be curtailed. The senior is taking too many ill-advised shots, as evidenced by a 33.3 field goal percentage against ACC opponents.
Maryland's win over Wake provided a template for how the team should operate offensively. Give Hayes and Vasquez the majority of the minutes in the backcourt, and allow them to use their penetration and passing ability to get good shots for athletic forwards Ekene Ibekwe and James Gist.
Gist is fast becoming a force on the low block, using his strength, quickness and leaping ability to beat defenders to the rim. Making the 6-8 junior even more dangerous is the fact that he's developed a reliable intermediate jump shot and is shooting a high percentage from the free throw line. He made a left-handed jump hook against the Demon Deacons that was extremely difficult and spoke to his rapidly improving post skills.
Ibekwe has been up and down as an inside finisher, but he certainly looked good in making all six of his field goal attempts against Wake. The 6-9 senior clearly is more effective when he receives a pass in scoring position, which Hayes and Vasquez both can deliver very well.
If Williams does commit to a two-point guard arrangement with Hayes and Vasquez, he then can use Strawberry and Jones at small forward, with the minutes divided based on who has the hot hand.