By Mike Ashley, For The ACC Sports Journal
November 11, 2002 COLLEGE PARK They're seeing red in College Park these days. Not because that's likely the color of the national championship banner that'll fly in the new on-campus basketball palace at the Comcast Center. It's because the Terrapins are mad. Despite last year's 32-4 record, second straight Final Four and national title, red-clad Maryland isn't hearing much about the Terrapins when talk turns to the best teams of 2002-03.
Yeah, I think people are overlooking us, senior point guard Steve Blake said. They look at what we lost, and they think we're not going to be a contender. But we've got a lot of guys that played a lot last year. (The talk) just motivates us.
Blake, the ACC assists leader for two years running, is Maryland's only returning starter, but he has a lot of familiar faces around him. Juan Dixon, Lonny Baxter, Chris Wilcox and Byron Mouton are gone, but Gary Williams has turned Maryland into one of those programs that doesn't need much time to rebuild. They just plug in different parts each year and keep rolling along.
This isn't the team that ruled college basketball last year, but the whole ACC was hard-hit by graduation and the lure of the NBA. Duke lost three starters, but some national publications still are pushing the baby-faced Blue Devils for the Final Four. Likewise, Virginia, despite last season's uneven performance, seems to have picked up a higher profile. Maryland, which finally carved out a national niche, is wondering why no one's talking Terps.
We are the defending national champions, Williams snapped this fall, when someone asked if Maryland could contend this season. There was definitely more than a hint of indignation in the response, and Williams can go ahead and thank the media for putting the coveted no-respect chip right back on his team's shoulders.
I think a lot of people are underestimating us just because they look and see Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter are gone, senior guard Drew Nicholas said. They don't see that we have four seniors starting, with the possibility of a fifth (Calvin McCall). They don't see how many young guys we've got coming in that are really able to play the game and eager to learn. And we have Coach Williams, probably one of the best teachers in the game of basketball. So let them underestimate us a little bit.
The 6-3 Blake and the 6-3 Nicholas will compose a premier backcourt.
Blake is 249 assists shy of becoming the fourth collegian to reach 1,000 career assists, and his toughness and dedication in leading Maryland's perimeter defense and highlight-reel fastbreak is unquestioned. He worked on his perimeter shot hours at a time each day this summer, and he's added a little meat to his sinewy frame with the hope of joining many of his former teammates in the NBA next year.
Nicholas has bided his time behind Dixon. He averaged 5.1, 6.6 and 7.1 points per game in the last three seasons. He could blossom into a top scorer, with significantly more minutes than the 20.5 he contributed last year. Nicholas' long arms make him a defensive threat, and he gets lots of baskets in transition. His career 38 percent shooting from three-point range also should become a more vital part of the attack.
Here's the catch in the backcourt: 6-1 freshman John Gilchrist looks too good to keep on the bench. If he doesn't force Williams into a three-guard starting attack, he'll certainly see major minutes off the bench. A solid 170 pounds, he can penetrate on offense and muscle on defense, and he's zero-to-60 mph in the open court.
The two frontcourt spots should go to veteran returnees Tahj Holden and Ryan Randle. Holden, a 6-10 senior, bangs around the basket effectively and also can pop out to knock down a three-pointer. He averaged 5.6 points and 2.7 rebounds in 18.5 minutes per game in 2001-02. Holden and the 6-9, 255-pound Randle are interchangeable at forward and center, though the physical Randle probably will do most of the low post dirty work. The Terrapins needed him for just under 10 minutes a game last year, but with so many ACC teams so young around the basket, Randle may be poised for a big year.
Randle's former Allegany (Md.) Community College teammate, newcomer Jamar Smith, also will turn heads and push bodies around. The 6-9, 239-pound forward/center was pencilled in at small forward, before he began throwing his weight around in the low post in practice. A juco All-American, he averaged 17.9 points and 12.8 boards last season. He reputedly has great offensive instincts and is a smaller, quicker version of Wilcox.
The potential trouble spot for the Terps is at small forward, where they've played jack-of-all-trade types Byron Mouton and Danny Miller the past few seasons. Nicholas can move up or Smith may move down, but the opening is there for a longshot such as McCall, the former quarterback who left football to sit on the basketball bench the last two seasons. In whatever capacity, the 6-3 McCall, now with a veteran's savvy, should see more action.
Likewise, highly touted 6-8 freshman Travis Garrison is virtually assured a spot in the rotation. He can contribute in the paint or on the wing, and Williams has said Maryland needs him to play right away. While Garrison likely fits in at power forward, fellow freshman Nik Caner-Medley will get the opportunity to fill that small forward slot. The 6-8 jumping jack was the talk of the fall, but his spectacular dunks may not offset his need for more polish, beef and experience after a prep career in Maine.
Sophomore guard Andre Collins looked like a shoo-in for more playing time until Gilchrist showed up. The 5-9 Collins will contribute thanks to his quickness, but he'll have to wait to move into a steady role. Another freshman guard, 6-4 Chris McCray, has the talent to help but the advantage of not being pressed into service right away.
Our bench will be younger, Williams said. And a lot of guys will have to change their roles. They'll have to go from coming off the bench and really contributing to starting. We have to get to the position where there's no let-up off the bench, like last year's team. There's no guarantee that will happen, but it's the thing we will really have to work on.
Williams will make something work. He has another load of talented and well-coached players, as the Terrapins are anxious to prove.
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