March 24, 2003 COLLEGE PARK More talented, less experienced.
That's the quick early take on next year's version of Maryland basketball. An influx of four talented freshmen, at least three of whom could contribute right away, will give coach Gary Williams his most talented roster from top to bottom since he arrived in College Park in 1989.
Back-to-back strong recruiting classes have brought the Terps eight players who were consensus top-100 recruits coming out of high school. Half of those players were top-50 talents, and two (freshman forward Travis Garrison, incoming guard Mike Jones) earned McDonald's All-America status. Add in junior forward Jamar Smith, a juco All-American, and Maryland has the nucleus of a young but potentially superb squad.
On the other hand, Maryland will have a glaring lack of experience next season. Strong leadership from seniors the Terps have had at least three in the rotation in each of the last three seasons has been a key to the program's recent success, and that intangible element will be virtually nonexistent in 2003-04.
Smith will be the lone senior, thanks to some recruiting mistakes and the early departure (last year) of forward Chris Wilcox. After one season in the program, Smith is still learning the Maryland system and figuring out what it takes to play at a major conference level. It would be a reach to count on him for leadership next season.
What happened to the Terps' original Class of 2004? It was a freak show of sorts, one that included it's OK, we're joking a bit here a giant, a midget and a non-student. Wilcox never had any interest in school, and as a result he bolted for the NBA as soon as the interest was there. Andre Collins, a 5-5 guard, failed to qualify out of high school and spent a year at Hargrave Military Academy. Matt Slaninka, a 7-4 project, just didn't have the skill or athleticism to play at an ACC level and transferred to Division II Shepherd.
One blip on the recruiting radar generally isn't a major problem for a strong program, but Maryland followed that unimpressive group with one that was just as shaky. Williams stuck with Collins coming out of prep school and also brought in a mid-major talent in forward Mike Grinnon. Rounding out the class was juco transfer Ryan Randle, who gave the Terps two solid yet unspectacular seasons.
A failure to land a high school big man, combined with an immediate need in the frontcourt, forced Williams to go the juco route, but that left the current sophomore class short. Grinnon seems unlikely to play a meaningful minute for Maryland, and Collins projects as a career backup. Both players have been mentioned as transfer possibilities, although they have publicly indicated their desire to stay in College Park.
Remember that a major reason the coaching staff did not recruit so well those two years was because of an overload of talent already in the program. Big-time high school seniors saw no playing time in College Park and thus turned the Terps down.
Some of the indisputable proof that too much talent was an issue at Maryland came from Danny Miller, who chose to transfer following the first Final Four run because he foresaw backing up Byron Mouton as a senior. Miller was criticized heavily for that decision, but in retrospect it worked out well for all parties. Mouton was a crucial cog in Maryland's national championship season, which might not have been the case had he still been splitting time with Miller. Meanwhile, Miller has flourished at Notre Dame, becoming the type of go-to player and high scorer he wanted to be.
The bottom line for Maryland is that back-to-back subpar recruiting efforts created a huge hole in the middle of the program. Williams will be competing next season with a bunch of sophomores and freshmen, a circumstance that bodes very well for the long-term future but could result in some immediate struggles.
Keys: Gilchrist, Smith, Caner-Medley
Projecting Maryland's 2003-04 starting lineup and overall rotation at this point is difficult, since Williams has so many ways to go and it is impossible to predict how the players involved will develop during the offseason.
About the only certainties are that rising sophomore John Gilchrist will be the starting point guard, and that the high-flying Smith will be in the starting lineup at either center or power forward. The rest is totally up in the air, with no fewer than eight players having the opportunity to show they deserve to start.
Perhaps the first order of business is determining whether Jones is a small forward or a wing guard. If he is the explosive run-jump athlete with a perimeter shot that he's advertised to be, then the 6-4 phenom should start immediately somewhere.
It probably would work out best if Jones can play wing guard, as that would enable rising sophomore Nik Caner-Medley to remain the starter at small forward. The 6-7 lefty showed this season that he goes aggressively to the basket and the backboards, but he must become a more reliable three-point shooter to be a truly effective three.
If Jones simply is not ready to start, the wing guard job probably would fall to Chris McCray, who showed flashes as a freshman this season before fading badly. McCray can be a very accurate perimeter shooter and is very active on the defensive end, using his quickness and long arms to disrupt. He must gain weight and get stronger to be able to withstand the grind of an entire season, as he clearly wore down in February and March.
There are a myriad of options in the frontcourt, and all start with the development of Garrison, who endured a disappointing freshman campaign for various reasons. Garrison's stock hit a high point in December, when he played well against Indiana and briefly entered the starting lineup. However, he later suffered through a terrible slump and seemed to lose confidence.
Williams probably didn't help matters by riding Garrison in practice and cutting his playing time dramatically. The veteran coach didn't handle this personnel problem as adeptly as he handles most others. Things got so bad at one point that there was talk that the former McDonald's All-American might transfer at season's end. Those rumors seem to have been put to rest, but concern remains as to whether the former DeMatha Catholic standout will become the type of impact player so many envisioned.
One thing that must be worked out in the offseason is whether Garrison is a three or a four position-wise. Garrison still wants to play on the perimeter and facing the basket, while Williams wants him inside with his back to the basket. Garrison figures to get the first shot at the power forward slot, but if he falters it could open things up for one of two freshman big men.
Hassan Fofana is a 6-10, 270-pound widebody. The New Guinea native's game is said to be about power and muscle. Will Bowers is a 6-11 center with solid skills who needs to gain strength. He has more of a finesse game and projects as more of the passing post player in Maryland's flex offense. It remains to be seen whether Fofana or Bowers is ready to contribute next season, as early indications are that neither yet possesses the polished post moves necessary to play the pivot in the ACC.
Another option would be to use Caner-Medley at power forward, alongside Smith, and play Jones and McCray at the wings. That lineup would seem to leave the Terps with plenty of quality offensive options but a bit short in the rebounding department.
The bottom line, as always, is that Williams is going to start the five best players as defined by how well and how consistently they do what the coach wants to see and figure out the rest from there.
Staff Changes Extremely Likely
There likely will be staff changes during the offseason, as lead assistant Dave Dickerson is ready and willing to accept a head coaching position if the right one comes along. He already is being touted as a top candidate for the Clemson vacancy, and there certainly will be interest from other major programs.
Williams has been very vocal in supporting Dickerson's attempt to become a head coach, but Williams probably won't be thrilled if his former player lands within the conference. Dickerson, a South Carolina native, recently was described by one columnist in the Palmetto State as a perfect fit for Clemson. Certainly, his skills as a young, energetic recruiter are well-suited for the Tigers, whose biggest problem historically has been a lack of ACC-caliber talent.
However, it should be noted that Dickerson did not single-handedly land all of the players (Terence Morris?) attributed to his recruiting in recent published reports. The seventh-year assistant did serve as the lead recruiter for many of Maryland's top signees, including juco All-American Steve Francis, Wilcox and Jones, but Dickerson certainly must share credit for prospects whose main contact with the Terps was either Billy Hahn, Jimmy Patsos or Williams.
Maryland could weather the loss of Dickerson, provided Patsos returns for his 13th season on the staff. After years as the restricted earnings coach, Patsos has proven a strong recruiter and capable bench strategist. It was Patsos, in fact, who landed Caner-Medley, Bowers and Ekene Ibekwe.
There was some scuttlebutt recently that Patsos also was looking into other jobs, but that seems unlikely if Dickerson departs. The loss of both coaches at the same time would be a major blow to the program, as Williams would be forced to bring in two new assistants who immediately would bear major responsibility on the recruiting trail. No. 3 assistant Matt Kovarik may be ready for an expanded role, but nobody expects him to jump two notches on the coaching ladder at this very early stage of his career.