July 15, 2002
COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- When the Maryland Terrapins take the floor of the Comcast Center to open the 2002-03 men's basketball season, it will not be the same team that captured the NCAA Final Four with wins over Kansas and Indiana last March in Atlanta. That is true.
Gone are four starters and the team's top four scorers. That is what critics and prognosticators will say when they evaluate the 2002-03 Terrapins without looking any further than last season's final stat sheet.
What is important, however, is a look at who does return. And who joins them. And the program which has been built since 1989-90 by the alum-turned-coach who lifted Maryland from the depths of NCAA sanctions through a series of NCAA Tournament appearances over each of the last nine straight seasons.
Maryland returns the nation's premier playmaker in senior point guard Steve Blake. Blake, with 107 games and 105 starts under his belt including 16 NCAA Tournament games (only eight players in college history have ever played in more than 20 NCAA games, by the way), is an average season from becoming just the fourth player in NCAA history to eclipse 1,000 assists. Again, critics will point to his lack of scoring. Blake, however, averaged eight points per game last season. Just one more bucket per game as a senior will produce a double-figure scorer who will challenge for the nation's lead in assists for a second straight season. His 7.9 assists last year were tops in the Atlantic Coast Conference for a second straight year, a new school record, and second-best in the country.
And aren't most championships built on experienced guard play? Or so they say? Add to Blake the presence of multi-talented shooting guard Drew Nicholas and the Terrapins boast the most experienced backcourt in the country.
O.K., so the Terps may actually be well-stocked at the guards, but "how about the post," the critics will ask?
Yes, Lonny Baxter and Chris Wilcox have departed for the NBA. But those same experts must ask themselves, "what was probably been the Terps' greatest strength during their NCAA runs of the past two seasons?" The answer - depth in the post. And no, it's not all gone.
Maryland has employed a physical, brutish, talented front line of four rotating bodies each of the last two seasons. And while this season's cast may not carry the same national acclaim to start the season, the returning pair of post players plus the incoming group of players may well return that rotation to the same status as years past - and create concern and havoc for opposing coaches.
Tahj Holden was a part-time starter as a junior, starting 10 straight games before Chris Wilcox returned to the lineup to begin play in the ACC. Holden presents an interesting contrast - the team's biggest and most physical force defensively, he also shoots a 3-point ball with 45 percent accuracy for his career. And his best play has come in Maryland's biggest games (Stanford and Kansas, among others).
So with those four returning seniors, a formidable starting lineup can begin to take shape despite its critics.
Maryland's depth the past two seasons has steadied Williams and the Terrapins for another run at an ACC title in 2002-03, but its biggest question obviously does surround the development of its youth. Depth won't be what it has been without that development. And defense of an ACC and NCAA title will be difficult without that depth.
"I don't think anybody in the country lost more than we did," said Williams while assessing his team's future following last season's championship. "All four of our guys that we lost were great players here. But you don't replace them immediately. It takes time."
The question is, "how much time?"
Maryland's 2002-03 squad may face, in fact, a similar test as what its 1999-00 club encountered just three seasons ago. Facing the loss of three NBA draft picks including NBA co-rookie of the year Steve Francis, the Terps regrouped behind Williams to win nine straight ACC games in one stretch, advance to the ACC final and finish 25-10.
Said Williams about comparisons with his club of 2000, "Steve Blake had to start as a freshman point guard. We still had a great player in Terence Morris, but you couldn't put high expectations on that team because we were called unproven. Just like this year, even though we have a title under our belt. But we won 25 games and got to the Sweet Sixteen that year. Who knows for this year? We'll just have to see how hard we'll want to work. That usually decides it."
If hard work is the determining factor and Williams can mold his club the same as in years past, why not make a run at another ACC title? Or add a 10th straight NCAA Tournament bid and by that point, hope to defend a national title?
In fact, despite five NBA draft picks between 1997 and 2001, Maryland still finished among the top three teams of the nation's most powerful basketball conference in each of five straight seasons. So why not a sixth?
Blake and Nicholas are secure at the guard spots, and two sophomores and a pair of freshmen waiting in the wings to backup either position.
A quick guard and able ballhandler, 5-10 sophomore Andre Collins has exhibited a knack for putting the ball in the basket and can shoot the 3-pointer. He could see reserve time at either a "1" or "2" position depending on needs.
Collins, local product Chris McCray, and two-time Virginia prep player of the year John Gilchrist, will look to ease their way into a rotation. All three players, plus returning 6-6 sophomore Mike Grinnon, could see backup duty for Nicholas as a shooting guard.
McCray is perhaps the most natural shooting guard among Maryland's incoming class. A Washington Post All-Met selection with fellow D.C.-area prepster and Terrapin freshman Travis Garrison, his role is more clearly defined.
Like Collins, Gilchrist may well be groomed for either guard position. A highly sought-after prospect with excellent size and potential, he comes into the program with hopes of making an immediate impact - though development and learning the Maryland system will be his first order of business.
Assessing his guards, Williams said, "We have good veteran leadership in each of the '1' and '2' positions. What's going to be the key in the backcourt is really the same as in the frontcourt, the ability of McCray and Gilchrist to develop their game quick enough where they can really help us."
The "wild card" is the small forward or swing position. The "3" spot was held the past two seasons almost exclusively by Mouton and Nicholas. With Mouton gone, though, and Nicholas likely to see most of his time as a shooting guard, youth could ease into the lineup at this position.
Options are plentiful, including Nicholas still seeing time at this slot, and even some play from fourth-year senior Calvin McCall who has seen just spot duty during his career. McCall, however, saw action in 19 games as a junior and since his earlier "double-duty" stint between football and basketball in his first two seasons, he now will concentrate on basketball alone, for a second straight year. Joining McCall as leading candidates to play the small forward are Grinnon and 6-7 freshman Nik Caner-Medley, and even Garrison or 6-9 transfer Jamar Smith.
Said Williams, "A guy like Caner-Medley, if he can play the '3' spot and play some good time there, and if McCall can do some things without Byron [Mouton] in front of him, we can be in a good position. We have some players there, it all will matter how the new kids develop."
McCall, Grinnon or Caner-Medley all are options if the Terps choose to play the position with the prototypical 6-5 to 6-7 sized athlete.
Grinnon, a newcomer to the college scene last season, came to campus as a shooter. Caner-Medley, meanwhile, is expected to be a more physical player who might lean to the interior. McCall, though only 6-3 but bulkier than most his size, has become the most experienced player at this position, and has become not only a quality defender but a viable offensive player, as well.
Meanwhile, if Williams opts for a larger, more physical lineup, incoming 6-9 thoroughbreds Smith or Garrison could present a difficult mismatch for opponents, given the ability to defend a smaller player on the perimeter.
Smith will likely see time both inside and outside. A former teammate of Randle's two seasons ago at Allegany, his size makes him a natural contributor in Williams' post rotation, but his agility and shooting prowess could be used in a small forward.
Garrison, like Smith, provides a big-sized option at the "3". The prep All-American has most often been touted as a power forward, but his quickness and his ability to shoot may well help the Terps employ a steady diet of 6-9 talents at swingman.
Added Williams, "Somebody's going to have to step up at the '3.' There are some questions to be answered there."
In the post, where the Terps have combined talents at the traditional power forward and center positions, Williams likely will have the afore-mentioned senior duo of Holden and Randle - to go with newcomers Garrison and Smith.
What is new with this season's rotation at the post is that virtually all of Maryland's big men are considered to be shooting threats from outside the lane. Holden, Garrison and Smith all come with labels as shooters, and Randle, too, is considered to have a nice stroke facing the basket.
Randle employs a game similar in style to that of Baxter's the last four seasons. He is nimble for his size and has proven to be an above-average shot blocker. He and Holden both are capable of All-ACC seasons and together, Maryland won't miss a beat from where it left off last season.
With Garrison and Smith, the Terps bring newcomers into the program that are more versatile away from the basket than the bruisers employed during Baxter's four-year era, and perhaps more polished than Wilcox when he entered the Maryland regime as a freshman. In a normal lineup, Garrison and Smith could see time as a power forward. In a larger lineup, either could see time at a small forward.
PROGRAM'S NEW DEVELOPMENT
And so what lies ahead for Maryland as it defends its national title is an early season of development. Development of a new arena as well as of new players - of those players' skills; of those players' transitions to the more challenging college game and to the system employed by Gary Williams; and the development and blending of new combinations.
"Even though we won the ACC regular season last year, we'll be a different team this year," said Williams. "We'll have to earn that respect again. We're not going to be the team picked to win the league title, probably. We're going to have to earn the right to be thought of in that regard again. But that's o.k., I don't mind that. I like that. It's a different type of pressure, trying to find out how good you are, not just trying to defend how good you are.
"I truly like the challenge," he added, "because we have some veteran players back who have played key roles, yet we have some new people who have to develop quickly so they can be part of our team this year. It's a completely different challenge than we've had in the last two years, but it's what I'm looking forward to. I think we can be a very good team. We can definitely be very competitive and who knows by February how good we can be?"
Talent-wise, Maryland can fill the vacancies in the lineup left by five departures from its NCAA champions.
And experience-wise, Maryland will send to the floor a starting lineup that will compete with any program in the country, bar none, with perhaps the country's best playmaker.
Depth-wise and in terms of Williams' playing rotations in 2002-03, Maryland's youth and changes will draw the same curiosity and excitement as the new home in which the Terps will play.