Summer Men's Basketball Preview

June 25, 2001

2001-02 Summer Basketball Preview

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Suffice to say, the 2000-01 University of Maryland men's basketball season was a good one: 25 wins for a third straight season, a trip to the first Final Four in school history, a school-record eighth straight NCAA Tournament appearance and an eighth consecutive upper-division finish in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Simply stated, Maryland and 13th-year coach Gary Williams are poised for another run at the NCAA Final Four and a potential national championship.

The Terrapins ended their 2001 run by winning 10 of their last 12 games, beating top-seeded Stanford for the NCAA West Region title and matching their highest postseason ranking in history, No. 4 by USA Today/ESPN. Momentum, hunger, senior leadership, versatility, balance and a remarkable work ethic by the team's brightest stars have this year's team perched with one, single goal --- to win the first national championship in school history.

Said Williams in the months following his school's first Final Four berth and looking ahead to next season, "Yes, I like our team. You never know for sure, but I think we've got the character that will allow us to get back to the Final Four and not affect our preparation for the upcoming season."

Looming is a highly-anticipated 2002 sequel which features four returning starters, and seven of the team's top nine scorers. The Terps boast what will widely be considered the most exciting backcourt in the country, paired with what last season was called the deepest and most balanced frontcourt in the nation.

"To be able to have Chris Wilcox, Tahj Holden, and Drew Nicholas -- who were key players in our drive to the Final Four last year -- certainly gives us depth, with experience, that is important early in the year," said Williams. "The good thing about the newer players, and watching how they fit into things, is that there is no immediate need for our new guys to play great right away. The pressure is for them to get to a place where they can contribute to the team, but there is no demand like there was on a Steve Blake to come in and start when he was a freshman. It is good for our program that we are in that situation this year."

The Terps seem to possess every ingredient necessary for another run late into March. But what might set Maryland apart from most teams with similar components is the work ethic and fearless style of play typified by its most glowing stars.

Together, Maryland's inside-outside tandem of Lonny Baxter and Juan Dixon may form the most hard-working and best thunder and lightning combo in the country: Baxter, the agile 6-8, 260-pound center who bruises opponents to the tune of 15.6 points and 7.9 rebounds per game, and Dixon, whose expert timing and quickness on both ends of the floor have produced record numbers in points and steals.

Neither was touted by analysts as a prep All-American or future pro when they were evaluated by Terrapin coaches three years ago out of local high schools. However, both have now earned All-America billing and have pro careers in their futures.

Baxter was the Most Outstanding Player at last year's NCAA West Regional while dismantling Georgetown and Stanford with a combined 50 points and 20 rebounds in those two games. [Who said those teams were more physical than the Terps?] Dixon, a 3-point shooter and slasher, scored double figures in all but two games last season and had steals in all but one, en route to third team All-America honors. Baxter plays with thunderous authority around the basket, Dixon dazzles with lightning-quick speed all over the floor. Both are rated among the best at their positions.

Analysts profess each season that championships are won by teams with the best point guards. That, too, places Maryland among the elite, with one of the nation's most productive yet unheralded point guards guiding the Maryland attack. Already a two-year starter, junior Steve Blake enters his third college season well on his way to the Terrapin career record for assists, and within reach of the top assist-makers in ACC and NCAA history (Hurley, Corciani, Cota are 1-2-3 on both lists). With two college seasons to play, Blake is on target to become just the fourth player ever to record 1,000 assists. Enough said.

Quick, daring, crafty and steadily getting stronger, Blake has shown a knack for rising to the occasion. His best games last season were at Duke (11 assists, 11 points) and against Duke in the ACC Tournament (11 assists, eight rebounds). A late 3-pointer against the Blue Devils tied the score with 8.1 seconds remaining in the ACC semifinal. He repeatedly lifted the Terps with timely second-half scoring, including all 10 of his points in a pivotal road win at Wake Forest, and 10 straight points in the waning minutes of a narrow non-league win at Penn.

What's more, Blake improved his scoring average throughout a sophomore season which culminated with averages of 6.9 points and an ACC-leading 6.9 assists. He became the first Terrapin since John Lucas to lead the ACC in assists, and his 9.4-point average throughout the NCAA Tournament was third on the team.

If it is Blake that makes the Terps go, it is returning senior and All-American Juan Dixon that makes them go higher and faster. And quicker. And longer.

Since his entry into the Maryland starting lineup two years ago as a sophomore, Dixon has wowed his critics, fans and college basketball experts with his multitude of talents and constantly fearless play. He has led the Terps with an 18.0-point scoring average in each of the past two seasons and this year could become the only Maryland player besides Lucas ever to earn three consecutive first team All-ACC citations.

The explosive-scoring two guard has exceeded 30 points on five occasions in two years, and has routinely netted 20 or more.

College basketball analysts from across the country have tabbed Dixon as one of the most lethal scoring threats in the country. Difficult to defend and constantly challenging his opponents, Dixon scores with an array of 3-pointers, slashing jumpers and penetration moves against bigger defenders. Also a deft passer, second to Blake with 2.6 assists last season, and a scrappy cutter without the ball, Dixon is an all-the-time threat to produce scoring in one fashion or another.

Oh, yeah, and he's the Terps' best perimeter defender, also. With each of his first team All-ACC honors the past two years, Dixon has also racked ACC All-Defense honors as the league's leader in steals (2.7 in 2000, 2.6 in 2001). Gifted with exceptional endurance and characterized by his relentless effort, Dixon attacks on both ends of the court like few others in the college game.

In Dixon and Blake, few schools can boast such an all-around one-two punch on the perimeter. Maryland, though, is unlike most other schools in the nation. Backing both players is a third-year star who might start at most schools -- junior Drew Nicholas.

Nicholas was one of the Terps' unsung heroes during their run to the Final Four last season. A 6-3 guard whose natural skills place him most comfortably in a perimeter scoring role, Nicholas was asked by Maryland coaches to sharpen his skills as a ballhandler and learn the task of backing Blake at the point. With the addition of 6-6 shooting guard and swingman Byron Mouton to the lineup last season, Nicholas' successful transition allowed Williams the flexibility to operate a four-guard rotation during which the Terrapins never missed a beat.

Similar to Dixon in his 3-point shooting prowess and the ability to score off the drive, Nicholas frequently was Maryland's first or second player off the bench, aiding Blake and then spelling either Dixon or Mouton. The lanky performer averaged 6.6 points and 2.4 assists while averaging over 16 minutes per game last season. He has not missed a game during his first two college seasons, and he already is climbing among the school's 3-point leaders as he enters his junior campaign.

And then there is freshman newcomer Andre Collins, the rookie to the Terps' guard rotation in 2001-02 who is hoped will provide additional quickness and a second pure point guard. New to the college level, the 5-9 fireball boasted 15.6 points and eight assists per game at Hargrave Military Academy while helping his club to a 27-1 record. In his final two seasons at Crisfield (Md.) High School, Collins averaged 29 and 30 points as a junior and senior, respectively.

Completing the Terrapins' backcourt contingent are returners Earl Badu and Calvin McCall, both who saw limited action in 2001.

Versatility and the ability to create matchup problems may be the Terrapins' strong suit when it comes to its forward slots. Yes, Terence Morris has moved onto the NBA, but the Terps' stable of forwards returns ready to duplicate its depth of last season.

Returning as a starter at one forward is 6-6 swingman Byron Mouton, whose flair for the dramatic might be his most visible trait. But beyond his animation on the floor, the senior provides Maryland with an athletic, explosive scorer who slashes opposite Dixon and rebounds well on the offensive glass. Mouton shot a remarkable 50 percent from the floor last season, with most of his scoring coming on an array of leaning, off-balance jumpers. Two years after transferring from Tulane, Mouton bulled his way into the Terps' starting lineup after four games last season, and earned all-tournament honors at the BB&T Classic in his first two starts.

Nicholas is versatile enough to play the 1, 2 or 3 spots on the floor, and freshman Michael Grinnon is expected to ease into his role as a perimeter shooting specialist. Both can fill shooting roles from the "3" position in a small lineup, and spell Mouton during stretches, but it is at the power position where Maryland is most versatile.

Junior Tahj Holden and sophomore Chris Wilcox, both 6-10 and athletic, will roam the interior alongside Lonny Baxter and JC transfer Ryan Randle to again give Maryland four athletic big men to patrol the paint. Both Holden and Wilcox can play the post, as well, and given varying lineups, any two or three of the big-man quartet may be on the floor at the same time.

Holden is the most experienced of the power forwards, and joined Baxter and Dixon during summer 2001 while playing with Team USA at the World University Games. Holden also is a productive 3-point shooter, shooting nearly 50 percent out of 44 attempts over the last two seasons, making him a viable scoring threat both inside and out. After missing nine games to injury last season, Holden returned to action in mid-January and immediately commanded a physical presence, prompting Williams' postgame comment, "He certainly makes us a little more nasty out there, doesn't he?"

Holden scored in double figures in four games last season --- 14 at home against Duke, 10 against the Devils in the ACC semifinals, 10 in the Sweet Sixteen against Georgetown and 14 against Stanford in the West Region final. What's more, his career rebounding high (7) also came against Duke. He played his highest quality minutes in Maryland's biggest games.

Wilcox could be the most physically-gifted player on the Terrapins' roster. As a freshman, he averaged 8.6 minutes per game as he blended with a deep interior lineup, and frequently excited Cole Field House audiences with spectacular dunks. The task for Wilcox in 2001-02 is to more sharply hone his skills at both ends of the floor, while earning increased minutes and working in and out of the lineup with Holden, or in the post.

In the post, Baxter is a difficult load to contain, on either end of the floor. Unheralded out of high school and undersized by most standards as a prototype center, he has steadily earned his position among the nation's best with a blue-collar, workmanlike approach.

Against NCAA Tournament competition, Baxter has posted double-double efforts in five of his last seven games. He became the first player in Maryland history to earn merit as the MVP of an NCAA regional by mastering the supposedly "bigger and stronger" front lines of Georgetown and Stanford. He bulled his way to All-ACC honors for a second straight season in 2001, and looks to join Dixon as a three-time All-ACC recipient.

Though thickly muscled and obviously physical, the big man possesses remarkably quick feet and still is able to maneuver past most larger opponents, scoring most of his points with an assortment of offensive moves under and around most taller defenders.

Last season, Baxter was backed either by departed senior Mike Mardesich, or Holden or Wilcox. Holden and Wilcox both remain in a rotation at the "5" position, but Randle, built very similar to Baxter, will share the assignment.

Randle led Duncanville (Texas) High School to a state championship before attending Allegany CC the last two seasons, and last year helped the Trojans to a runner-up finish at the National Junior College Championships. He was an all-conference pick and, at 6-9, can also shoot from outside, lending still more flexibility to Williams' lineup choices.

Another newcomer bidding for playing time this season is redshirt freshman Matt Slaninka. A local product out of DeMatha High School, the 7-4 Slaninka is a "work in progress" for the Terp coaches, and could be valuable for critical minutes each game on defense, and in helping to avoid foul trouble.

In the course of one season, very little has changed for the Terrapins. And yes, a lot has changed depending on one's perspective. Maryland returns almost its entire lineup intact from last year's national title contender, thus expecting the same shot at a title run in 2002.

Preseason expectations were lofty last season also, with a No. 5 AP preseason ranking, but oh, what a trip to the Final Four will do for credibility.

Where last season the Terps were bidding to earn national respect by moving past the Sweet Sixteen, which had been a roadblock in each of their last seven NCAA appearances, this year Maryland knows that it will be the target of every other hopeful, aiming to knock off one of the previous season's final four.

"When you do get to the Final Four," said Williams, "you are setting yourself up because every team you play the next year wants to beat a Final Four team. We have been in that role the past couple of seasons in our league. There is extra motivation to play Maryland this year, so we have to make sure we understand that. On the other side of the coin, we are returning four starters that are very important players to us, which will give us an edge, especially early in the season by playing teams that lost more players. We have to take advantage of that edge."

Maryland tips off the regular season as part of the Coaches vs. Cancer IKON Classic at Madison Square Garden, pitting itself against Arizona, Florida and Temple, all national contenders themselves.

The schedule will get no easier for Maryland, which has annually seen its schedule ranked among the country's toughest. Though the Terps boast the nation's longest non-conference homecourt win streak at 77 games, it will be tested early with a Nov. 27 date against defending Big Ten champ Illinois. One week later, the Terps co-host the annual BB&T Classic including George Washington, first round foe Princeton, and perennial power Connecticut.

By the time the dust settles after the opening month of play, Maryland could well have faced four Top 20 teams. And that's before traveling to Oklahoma in mid-December and reaching a challenging ACC schedule, which last year featured weekly Top 20 contests with five schools nationally ranked all season.

Maryland's history continues into the 2001-02 season, as it rides the momentum of one of its most prosperous stretches ever. The Gary Williams Era has produced more wins in the last five years than in any similar span of Terrapin history. The Terps boast a glorious past and are riding a glorious present. With the completion of its new Comcast Center arena just one season away and with continued hopes of returning to the Final Four, Maryland has visions of nothing but a glorious future.