By Jeff Zrebiec,
November 15, 2004 COLLEGE PARK If not for those three days in March, that stunning 72-hour period when Maryland leaped from the NCAA Tournament bubble to become one of the most unlikely ACC champions ever, the Terrapins would be starting the 2004-05 season with a far different outlook.
Expectations probably would be lower, questions would abound, and the Terps would be searching for their place in the ultra-talented ACC.
However, the bulk of this year's Maryland team one that got significant minutes from four freshmen and featured 11 players with a year or less of major college basketball experience last season came of age that weekend in Greensboro.
In upsetting the top three seeds en route to the program's first ACC Tournament championship in 20 years and coach Gary Williams' first at the helm of his alma mater, the Terps played with a newfound confidence and consistency and watched as a leader emerged in brash point guard John Gilchrist.
Now a year older and having lost just one player from last season (leading rebounder Jamar Smith), Maryland believes that the team that struggled for more than three months in 2003-04 has morphed into one capable of winning another ACC title and even making a run at a national championship.
"We had all offseason to party or celebrate from the ACC Tournament," said Gilchrist, who averaged a team-high 15.4 points last season and was the ACC Tournament MVP. "But this year, it's like you're a kid. You get a little piece of the pie, and you want the whole thing. We're going for the big chip right now. It's no secret. Anything else, we feel is a failure."
Added junior guard Chris McCray: "Just to beat those teams we beat, it showed us something, that it was all up to us. Now we have that confidence. There's no more excuses this year, no matter how young we still are."
With five sophomores, one freshman and a first-year junior in point guard Sterling Ledbetter, a transfer from Allegany (Md.) Community College, the Terps still fit the mold of a young team. But four of their probable starters Gilchrist, McCray and forwards Nik Caner-Medley and Travis Garrison are juniors. Each has approximately 60 games of experience under his belt.
"One of our goals this year is to play better early and to be more consistent," said Williams, whose team will play Memphis, Wisconsin, Florida State and possibly Michigan State (in the final of the BB&T Classic), all before the new year. "We were up and down last year, and that's something I don't like to see. I like gradual improvement."
Williams has seen that since the offseason with several players. Sophomore guard D.J. Strawberry, the Terps' best on-ball defender who teams dared to take a jump shot last season, spent the summer in the gym working out a flawed release by taking "hundreds and hundreds" of jumpers a day.
Gilchrist watched a ton of highlight packages of his teammates to find out where they like to receive the ball. He sees a scenario where his scoring average could go down this year, while his assist numbers shoot up. The team's purest shooter, sophomore Mike Jones, a former McDonald's All-American, didn't get much of a chance to exhibit his smooth stroke last year, because he struggled defensively and logged only 10 minutes per contest. So his mission was to work on his mental game.
"Last year, I thought playing defense was a physical thing, but this year I know it's all mental," Jones said. "You have to want to stop your guy from scoring. And with Coach Williams, you have to play defense in order to play."
Williams also expects that his team will reap the benefits from the 12-day, five-game tour of Europe it took in late August. Facing some of Europe's top professional teams, the Terps went 3-2, but the 16th-year Maryland coach valued the trip more as a chance to build camaraderie, especially with his two new assistants.
Keith Booth, the former Maryland All-American and a member of the 1998 NBA champion Chicago Bulls, and Mike Lonergan, the long-time coach of Catholic University who guided the Washington, D.C., school to the 2000-01 Division III national championship, replaced Jimmy Patsos and Matt Kovarik. The latter pair moved about 45 minutes north, to Loyola College in Baltimore.
As Williams looks at the big picture, he sees a team that is more prepared than last year, and he's cautiously optimistic.
"We're further ahead, but we're still sophomores and juniors," Williams said. "How ahead? I don't know."
The Terps still have a couple of question marks, including one that popped up unexpectedly in the preseason. One of the few constants last year was the Terps' ability to slow down their opponents, but in intrasquad scrimmages and in the first exhibition game, the team's defense was spotty at best. Against Division II Bryant, the Terps surrendered 12 first-half three-pointers and actually trailed the Bulldogs early in the second half.
"Our defense stunk," Williams said after the game. "We'll either get better defensively, or we won't be a very good basketball team."
Williams' other concern is locating a reliable inside scorer among a group that includes Garrison, sophomores Ekene Ibekwe, Hassan Fofana and Will Bowers, and freshman James Gist. The talk of the preseason was Gist's athleticism and coachability.
Though Williams hasn't settled on a starting lineup, Ibekwe, who showed flashes last year in averaging just under five points in 14 minutes per game, started at center in the preseason. Flanked by Garrison and Caner-Medley, Ibekwe prefers to be more of a slasher. Fofana, who is still learning how to use his mammoth size offensively, has been the first big man off the bench.
There is a strong possibility that the Terps will subscribe to the center-by-committee approach until somebody asserts himself on a consistent basis. Williams hopes that's sooner rather than later. Whether it's been Booth, Joe Smith, Obinna Ekezie or Lonny Baxter, the success of Williams' flex offense traditionally has hinged on a go-to guy in the post.
"I think all good teams have the ability to score inside, and they run an inside-outside game," Williams said. "You have to be able to get the ball in there. You don't get to the foul line unless you get the ball inside. We have to find a way to do that this year."
Until they do, the Terps likely will lean on what could be one of the best backcourts in the ACC. With the ability to take a bump and score inside, along with an improving outside game, Gilchrist is motivated that the names of Chris Paul, Jarrett Jack and Raymond Felton often are mentioned before his in the ACC point guard hierarchy.
"I definitely don't see that as a compliment," Gilchrist said. "I think I match up with any guard in America."
Williams, who loves what Strawberry does defensively and in the press, has hinted that he could start a three-guard lineup to get more minutes for Jones and Strawberry. Whatever the coach decides to do, the Terps feel they have all the pieces.
"I can't really think of anything we don't have," Caner-Medley said.
Added Garrison: "I think this year, you are going to see the team that won the ACC championship for the whole season. We're more experienced, mature, and we know what we have to do to win games. We have everything we need to win every game we play."
|1995||12-4 (1)||26-8||NCAA Sweet 16|
|1996||8-8 (4)||17-13||NCAA 1st Round|
|1997||9-7 (4)||21-11||NCAA 1st Round|
|1998||10-6 (3)||21-11||NCAA Sweet 16|
|1999||13-3 (2)||28-6||NCAA Sweet 16|
|2000||11-5 (2)||25-10||NCAA 2nd Round|
|2001||10-6 (3)||25-11||NCAA Final Four|
|2002||15-1 (1)||32-4||NCAA Champion|
|2003||11-5 (2)||21-10||NCAA Sweet 16|
|2004||7-9 (6x)||20-12||NCAA 2nd Round|
x won ACC title
* returning starter
John Gilchrist took his game to another level late last season displaying leadership, playmaking ability and a refuse-to-lose attitude while leading the Terps in minutes, scoring, assists and steals. He put together one of the finest three-game stretches in team history in leading Maryland to the ACC title. Now Gary Williams wants the muscular 6-3, 201-pounder to work harder to get others involved on offense. Despite tailing off toward the end of last season, Nik Caner-Medley showed enough to be considered a strength. The 6-8 left-hander, the team's third-leading scorer and third-leading rebounder in 2003-04, played impressively in the preseason. Travis Garrison came on strong as a sophomore, showing some of the ability that made him a McDonald's All-American. He shot the ball well from the perimeter and worked harder inside, while reaching double figures in nine of the final 17 games. Williams would like to see him become more of a post threat and increase his rebounding production.
Other Key Returnees
Chris McCray had an up-and-down sophomore campaign. He went through a stretch when he scored in single digits in seven of eight games, but he re-grouped to net 16 points or more five times down the stretch. A slightly built 6-5, 190-pounder, he has added muscle (10-plus pounds) to prevent getting pushed around. Big man Ekene Ibekwe had a solid debut, using his length, athleticism and leaping ability to contribute as a rebounder and shotblocker. He also has bulked up, although probably not enough to play center in the ACC. D.J. Strawberry is versatile enough to play all three wing positions and provides tenacious man-to-man defense along with solid ball-handling. Mike Jones, a former McDonald's All-American, is probably the team's best perimeter shooter and athlete but must improve his ball-handling and defense in order to get more minutes. Center Hassan Fofana is a 6-10, 288-pound widebody who knows how to throw his weight around but still has not developed much of an offensive game.
Williams has been pleasantly surprised with the play of freshman James Gist. The 6-8 leaper attacked the glass relentlessly in the preseason, totaling 16 points and a game-high 11 rebounds in one scrimmage. He may already be the team's best rebounder and shotblocker and is making a push to be the first frontcourt player off the bench. Juco transfer Sterling Ledbetter, fully recovered from injuries suffered in an auto accident over the summer, will be asked to provide some minutes at point guard. He has a good handle but committed too many turnovers in the preseason.
Also Worth Noting
Maryland got a head start on building team chemistry and unity during a 10-day trip to Italy. Williams was able to tinker with combinations and gauge the improvement of the returnees as the Terps went 3-2 against a variety of pro teams. Williams added two new assistants, with former Catholic coach Mike Lonergan succeeding Jimmy Patsos (Loyola) and former player Keith Booth replacing Matt Kovarik. Strawberry may have to handle the backup point guard responsibilities early, while Ledbetter learns the offense.
CHART BY: THE MARYLAND INSIDER