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Critics Now Leading Caner-medley Debate

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

  January 3, 2005 COLLEGE PARK — There's an ongoing debate among Maryland basketball fans and beat writers about the abilities of Nik Caner-Medley. Depending on whom you talk to, the junior forward is either a versatile player who helps the team or a limited player who hurts the team. There is no real middle ground when it comes to Caner-Medley, who is alternately praised or vilified on various fan message boards and in the media room of the Comcast Center. There are those who love the 6-8, 240-pounder's toughness and competitiveness. Even most detractors concede that Caner-Medley always plays hard and with tremendous intensity. Others decry Caner-Medley's penchant for trying to do too much, forcing plays that just aren't there. Even most supporters admit that the youngster from Maine may think he's better than he actually is. It's great to have a player that size who can knock down three-pointers, run the floor and finish a fastbreak with a resounding dunk, some say. Why can't a guy who is bigger than most teams' power forwards consistently finish inside, others wonder. On and on, the debate rages. At least one thing is certain: Maryland coach Gary Williams clearly comes down on the side in favor of Caner-Medley. That is evidenced by the fact that the forward is averaging 27.6 minutes per game this season, second on the team to junior point guard John Gilchrist. Caner-Medley was a lightning rod for criticism last year, when Maryland was struggling through a rough stretch of ACC play. He scored in single-digits in five league games, lowlighted by a giant goose egg at home against Clemson. While Caner-Medley broke out for 20 points in a huge victory over Wake Forest, he wound up scoring four or five points in three of Maryland's final postseason games. Of greater concern was Caner-Medley's difficulty defending quicker wing players. He got his pants pulled down by Julius Hodge (28 points) during a home loss to N.C. State, and he didn't fare much better against the likes of North Carolina's Rashad McCants (40 points in two meetings) or Duke's J.J. Redick (46 in two meetings). "As the year went on," Williams said, "I thought Nik got worn down a little bit." Williams didn't pull any punches during an offseason meeting with Caner-Medley, telling the then-sophomore that he needed to get stronger yet quicker in order to take his game to the next level. Caner-Medley seemed to take those words to heart, working during the offseason with former Maryland track coach Frank Costello to improve his agility, foot speed, lateral quickness and explosion. Those skills certainly were not helped by the severe foot injury Caner-Medley suffered in the NCAA Tournament loss to Michigan State during his freshman year. He battled other minor injuries last season, and he stated during this year's preseason camp that "being 100 percent healthy for the first time in my career is big." On the surface, Caner-Medley's statistics this season are solid. Through early January, he ranked second on the team in scoring, with an average of 14.6 points per game on 49 percent field goal shooting. His turnovers (18 in 10 games) were down slightly from last season. That's not saying much, since Caner-Medley was like a walking turnover at times in 2003-04. His ill-advised forays to the basket resulted in a whopping seven turnovers in the disastrous outing versus Clemson and four turnovers or more in six other games. He finished the season with 69 turnovers, far more than should be expected out of a secondary ball-handler. Yet a closer look at certain games reveals that Caner-Medley still may have some of the problems that plagued him a year ago. It appears that the forward's positive numbers are inflated by strong performances versus inferior competition, while he has continued to struggle in all areas against tougher opponents. For instance, Caner-Medley scored just 11 points on four-for-15 (26 percent) field goal shooting in the Terps' narrow overtime victory over Florida State. He managed only four rebounds yet committed three turnovers in 36 minutes of action in that game, Maryland's ACC opener. In the Terps' loss to Wisconsin, Caner-Medley scored just seven points on two-for-nine (22 percent) field goal shooting and committed six turnovers. He shot five-for-15 (33 percent) in the Terrapins' other loss, to George Washington. By contrast, Caner-Medley was outstanding in all areas against overmatched Liberty, scoring 20 points on nine-for-12 field goal shooting while swiping five steals and committing just one turnover. It is those types of numbers that cause critics to claim that Caner-Medley is not nearly as good as advertised. Those folks would love to see Williams give more of the small forward minutes to talented sophomore Mike Jones. Most objective observers can see the good and bad traits that Caner-Medley brings to the table. He is somewhat of a tweener by ACC standards, not quite big and strong enough to play power forward yet not nearly quick or athletic enough to play small forward. What's interesting about Caner-Medley is that he's an outstanding leaper when given a running start, either on the fastbreak, following shots or going for alley-oops. However, he can barely get off the ground from a standing start. As a result, Caner-Medley gets interior shots blocked far more than someone 6-8 should. He also has a low release point, which makes it even more difficult to get off shots down low or in traffic. On the other hand, Caner-Medley can be creative around the basket, with a good ability to make reverse layups. He is a fairly solid three-point shooter, ranking second on the team (behind Gilchrist and equal with shooting guard Chris McCray) with 15 field goals from beyond the arc. For the most part, it also appears that Caner-Medley is playing better man-to-man defense this season. However, a reminder of his past struggles came against Wisconsin, when he could not cover Alando Tucker (27 points). Strawberry, Ledbetter May Help While Caner-Medley may not be the ideal small forward, he is the best Maryland has at this point. Jones still is not ready for prime time (witness his one-for-nine shooting effort against Liberty), while sophomore forward Ekene Ibekwe is not entirely comfortable playing out on the perimeter. If any player deserves more minutes at small forward, it would be sophomore swingman D.J. Strawberry, whose always-strong defense and solid ball-handling have been augmented this season by an improved jumper. Williams may give Strawberry more minutes at the three, especially if junior college transfer Sterling Ledbetter can step up and handle the backup point guard duties. Speaking of Ledbetter, some thought Williams might redshirt the recruit from Allegany Community College this season. After all, Ledbetter did not play at all in Maryland's initial eight games, partly because of a strained calf muscle but more the result of poor practice performances. Ledbetter had recovered physically from the severe injuries he suffered in a May auto accident, but he admits he still was not there mentally in terms of basketball when preseason practice began. Purportedly the quickest player on Maryland's team, Ledbetter was not displaying that trait in practice. The sturdily built 6-4, 185-pounder admits he was not comfortable directing the team's flex offense and was overly cautious in the early going, often getting rid of the ball immediately and always making the safe pass. Ledbetter reportedly has become more aggressive in practice lately, breaking Gilchrist down off the dribble and taking the ball to the basket. Williams apparently liked what he saw and used the Laurel native against American and Liberty. If Ledbetter can emerge as a viable backup to Gilchrist, it would give Williams even more flexibility with an already deep and versatile roster. Football: On O'Brien, Abiamiri, Etc. The abrupt departure of running backs coach Bill O'Brien to Duke in December left a sour taste in the mouths of many Maryland fans, who recall that his hiring led directly to the loss of former Terps recruiting coordinator Mike Locksley. O'Brien departed College Park to become the offensive coordinator at Duke, a promotion few rising coaches would refuse. Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen mentioned that a member of O'Brien's family had "special needs" that could be better served at Duke Medical Center, but Friedgen did not elaborate and O'Brien wasn't available for comment. Friedgen clearly regretted the loss of O'Brien, whom he mentored at Georgia Tech and said was "like a son to me." That special relationship is what originally led O'Brien to leave Georgia Tech for Maryland, taking a step down from assistant head coach/offensive coordinator with the Yellow Jackets to initially become the Terps' linebackers coach. Left unspoken at the time was that Friedgen basically had hired O'Brien as his offensive coordinator-in-waiting. That was a preemptive move, made with the knowledge that current offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe was trying hard to get a head coaching job. Friedgen's feeling was that it was only a matter of time before Taaffe departed, and he considered O'Brien the ideal successor since the two had worked so well together at Georgia Tech. Locksley reportedly confronted Friedgen with the office rumor, that O'Brien quietly had been promised the offensive coordinator position if and when it came open, and Locksley obviously didn't like the response he received. Shortly after O'Brien was hired, Locksley made a lateral move to Florida to become the Gators' running backs coach/recruiting coordinator. At the time of his departure, Locksley made personal comments to some media members that basically indicated he did not feel his contributions to Maryland's turnaround had been fully appreciated. Understandably, Locksley also was hurt by his belief that Friedgen did not consider him offensive coordinator material. "I guess I can recruit 'em, but I can't coach 'em," Locksley said. In retrospect, at this point, Friedgen's staff shuffling looks like a mistake. Taaffe has been passed over for numerous head coaching jobs (most recently Ohio), O'Brien left without ever having to fill the offensive coordinator role, and there are early indications that Maryland's recruiting has suffered, due at least in part to Locksley's departure. Meanwhile, rumors continue to swirl that Notre Dame defensive end Victor Abiamiri is mulling a transfer to Maryland. Abiamiri, of course, was the Baltimore Gilman graduate whose acceptance of pocket money from Terps assistant Rod Sharpless caused a major recruiting controversy (and cost Sharpless his job) in February 2003. Maryland turned itself in after discovering the recruiting violation and received somewhat of a slap on the wrist (mainly one year of probation) from the NCAA. Articles reporting the sanctions contained a line stating that Maryland could not have any future contact with Abiamiri, but nobody is certain if that restriction still applies two years later. Certainly, stranger things have happened. In other news, offensive lineman Brock Choate recently left the team for personal reasons, while safety Chris Kelley and H-back Rob Abiamiri both had their requests for an extra year of eligibility denied by the NCAA.