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Three Steps Forward, Then Two Steps Back

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

January 6, 2003

COLLEGE PARK — Like many coaches in the ACC, Gary Williams spent December and early January dealing with the inconsistencies that come with relying on a lot of newcomers.

Just when Maryland appeared to be progressing, it showed signs of regressing. As soon as one problem got corrected, another developed. If one freshman played well, two others performed poorly.

Williams was quietly pleased with how Maryland acquitted itself in its ACC opener, against Georgia Tech. The Terps showed poise and toughness in a physical, bump-and-grind affair that went down to the wire. Maryland made all of the plays on both ends of the court down the stretch, thanks largely to the experience and leadership that comes with having four seniors. For the first time this season, the Terps made big shots, grabbed tough rebounds and mustered gutsy defensive stops at crunch time of a close game. It was clearly a major step forward, an indication that this team finally was learning how to win.

Less than one week later, Williams was seething over a sloppy, uninspired effort against lowly Wagner. The Terps raced out to a 20-4 lead, then basically resorted to street ball the rest of the way — jacking up jumpers, throwing the ball away, giving up 13 offensive rebounds to a team with no players taller than 6-6.

“We got off to a great start, and we reacted to that in the wrong way. We relaxed, lost focus and stopped playing hard,” said Williams, still fuming 20 minutes after the final buzzer. “We don't get out-worked often, but I thought we did today.”

Consistency, intensity, focus. These are issues Williams didn't have to worry much about the past couple of seasons, when almost every member of the rotation was a veteran. With four freshmen and a junior college transfer seeing significant time this year, a complete 40-minute effort becomes more difficult.

Rookies Show Promise, Problems

Fortunately, Williams has the luxury of so much depth that he can use playing time as an incentive to promote sound play. If a player makes one too many mistakes or doesn't work hard, he gets yanked without a second thought.

Freshman point guard John Gilchrist felt Williams' wrath after turning in nine error-prone minutes against Wagner. Gilchrist took a couple of bad shots, didn't run the offense properly and committed two turnovers in his worst performance to date. Apparently, he even made the mistake of talking back to Williams during one of the coach's tirades. That sent Williams into a rage, and he was seen screaming at the youngster from Virginia Beach at length. Gilchrist never got off the bench the rest of the game and became visibly angry about it.

Gilchrist shouldn't feel too bad. Fellow freshman Travis Garrison and juco transfer Jamar Smith already had received similar treatment. Williams pushed Garrison hard during the preseason, criticizing him out loud for getting tired during drills. Smith was another early whipping boy, getting regularly ripped and riding the pine for lack of intensity and hustle. In addition, wing guard Chris McCray didn't see the light of day for seven games, as Williams grew annoyed with having to answer so many questions about rookie forward Nik Caner-Medley.

“Why are we spending so much time talking about someone who hasn't done anything yet?” Williams said to beat reporters, who kept asking when the powerful freshman from Maine was going to start.

The positive news for Maryland was that each of the five newcomers showed at some point that they can really play.

Gilchrist had a break-out performance against Florida, totaling 10 points and four assists while displaying an ability to break down the defense with dribble penetration. Yet the accolades and press he got in the media and on the internet must have gone to his head, because he was terrible in the two games immediately after facing the Gators.

Garrison was the most consistent performer early, averaging seven points and five rebounds per game. Yet he was invisible against Florida and Georgia Tech, managing just one point and two rebounds in the former contest and putting up goose eggs in the latter.

Caner-Medley, who has started at small forward since the fifth game, was similarly up and down in terms of scoring but consistent with his defense and rebounding. He had career highs of 11 points and eight rebounds versus UMBC.

McCray took advantage of increased playing time, the result of an ankle injury suffered by Calvin McCall. The skinny 6-4 swingman was extremely active in extended action against Georgia Tech, blocking two shots and delivering a sweet no-look pass to Ryan Randle for a dunk that energized the crowd and picked up the entire team. He followed with another solid all-around performance in a season-high 21 minutes against Wagner.

By early January, Williams had a better idea what he was likely to get from the four freshmen on any given night.

Gilchrist is a solid backup point guard who has shown (for the most part) that he'll keep the offense running smoothly when Blake is on the bench or playing wing guard. The flashy, somewhat flamboyant youngster just needs to remember to play under control. Garrison is a steady, if unspectacular, power forward who can hold his own on the boards and defensively, and who will make the open jumper consistently. Williams would like to see Garrison become more of a low post threat, but that may be a year away. Caner-Medley is big and strong for a small forward and attacks the backboards with reckless abandon. He needs to do a better job finishing around the basket, and he may want to become less reluctant to fire a perimeter jumper that was surprisingly reliable (four of six on threes) in the early going. McCray brings athleticism and energy off the bench. He looks a lot like former Terp Johnny Rhodes in the face and also resembles the program's all-time steals leader in another way. McCray, blessed with quick hands and long arms, gets his hands on an awful lot of balls, as evidenced by his seven steals against Wagner.

Yet Williams, along with almost everyone else who has watched Maryland play this season, recognizes that Smith has by far the greatest 2003 upside among the newcomers. The New Jersey native is 6-9, 235 pounds of pure athleticism, a big-time leaper who gets up and down like he's on a pogo stick. He's the athletic, explosive big man this Maryland team is sorely lacking. Tahj Holden and Ryan Randle are both bangers, widebodies who rely on strength and positioning. Neither gets off the floor very well.

Williams used Smith extensively against Georgia Tech because he had no one else to counter the athleticism of freshman forward Chris Bosh. Smith was more than up to the challenge, blocking one Bosh shot while challenging several others and showing the quickness and footwork to defend him and beat him on boards.

Smith is still prone to mental lapses and mistakes, the result of not knowing the system well enough and not understanding the non-stop intensity required at the major Division I level. Yet it is clear that Williams will have to live with the mistakes, because Smith simply has to play if Maryland is to reach its full potential this season.

Football Feeling Almost Too Peachy

Add this to the growing list of Maryland football accomplishments even eternal optimists Mark Duffner and Ron Vanderlinden might not have been able to envision: Maryland 30, Tennessee 3, in the Peach Bowl, on national television, in front of almost 70,000 fans. Very, very impressive.

Beating the Volunteers so convincingly, and on a prominent stage, was important to Ralph Friedgen's blossoming program from an image standpoint. It showed that Maryland could beat a perennial national power, one of those big-time programs with instant name recognition. The Terps had stumbled badly in previous games against such teams, getting blown out by Florida in last year's Orange Bowl, whipped by Notre Dame in this year's Kickoff Classic and falling decisively to Florida State in each of the past two seasons.

Many around college football still doubted the Terps despite back-to-back 10-win campaigns, because of that failure to beat a quality opponent. Friedgen called the win over Tennessee a landmark victory for Maryland, another major step in the upward progression of the program.

“It does put us on another level,” Friedgen said. “If we can get more wins like this, it will help our credibility.”

Future recruits and their families won't remember or know that Tennessee was not a very good team this season. They'll walk into the Gossett Team House, see that Peach Bowl trophy in a glass case with the opponent and score attached, and come away real impressed.

Yet Maryland coaches and players shouldn't get overly excited about the win and start thinking the program is further along than it really is. Tennessee endured one of its worst seasons in recent memory, due largely to the fact that a dozen or so starters suffered season-ending injuries. The Volunteers were without their best receiver, their best defensive lineman and numerous other impact players.

Moreover, it was obvious to all that Tennessee didn't want to be in Atlanta that night. The Volunteers looked uninspired, unprepared and generally uninterested. Coach Phil Fulmer said he was embarrassed by his team's effort and stated in no uncertain terms that it was Tennessee's worst performance of the season. There were persistent rumblings prior to the contest about internal dissension among the Vols, and the game itself did nothing to discourage those rumors.

In the afterglow of the big win, several Maryland players were a bit too exuberant in their evaluation of the program.

“The sky's the limit. I don't see us losing a game next season, to tell you the truth,” star returner Steve Suter said. “I hope we can make the big game. I want a national championship, and I think we've got a good shot.”

Wide receiver Latrez Harrison seconded that thought: “There's no reason why we can't go to the national championship and win the game. We've got to raise the stakes around here. We went up against a traditional powerhouse team and pounded it 30-3. That should let everyone know that we're for real.”

Hold on there, boys. Try beating Florida State just once (the Terps are 0-for-12 versus the Seminoles) and a ranked non-conference opponent first. Remember, Tennessee was unranked, and rightfully so, for most of this season.

Accomplishing the latter challenge will be difficult, since it's unlikely Maryland will face a ranked non-conference opponent next season. The Terps' non-conference schedule for 2003 is nothing short of a joke: The Citadel, Eastern Michigan and Northern Illinois, in addition to traditional regional rival West Virginia.

Word out of College Park is that athletic director Debbie Yow already has tried to buy out the three patsies, but none went for the offer. Eastern Michigan has Maryland at home and needs the payday, while The Citadel and Northern Illinois want the publicity and recognition that go along with playing a strong ACC school.

Maryland won't rate well in the BCS standings with that kind of strength of schedule. Plus, it doesn't come off well when players from a team that's never beaten Florida State and got embarrassed by Virginia talk so boldly about the possibility of going undefeated.

At least Friedgen was realistic, pooh-poohing any thoughts of Maryland contending for the national championship.

“We're not there yet. We don't have enough depth to do that,” Friedgen said. “I'd like to contend for the national championship at some point, but we need to put together three strong recruiting classes in a row before we can think about that.”