- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Chris Wilcox packed up his belongings and started to head out of the locker room when he stopped, turned around, and admitted he probably should be back in Cole Field House later Tuesday night to shoot a few free throws.
His honesty came as a result of a 3-for-8 night at the line, one of the few blemishes in his 19-point, six-rebound, two block, 25-minute display off the bench against No. 2 Illinois in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
Even if he never showed up at Cole during the wee hours Tuesday, the fact that he thought about it is a dramatic change in Wilcox's approach to basketball, and for that matter, Maryland's chances to get back to the Final Four.
If the sophomore becomes a complete player, and actually gets better over the next three months, then the Terps and Wilcox could mirror the force that they were in dismantling a tired, and weary Illinois team 76-63, which was the conclusion of an eight-day trip away from Champaign for the Illini after a tournament in Las Vegas.
"I hope he's telling the truth, and if he is, then I'm coming back later to watch," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "He's becoming a basketball player and getting the total package. He wouldn't have thought about that before, but the other guys on the team are getting on him to make a free throw. It's going to be interesting because everybody saw how great he played and will tell him he was great, but he still gets lost every once in a while on offense. But that's OK with Tahj Holden and Lonny Baxter. But he's gotten so much better."
And everyone is noticing.
Sitting with Illinois coach Bill Self early Tuesday, Self kept talking about Wilcox, raving about his talents and how he was the Terps' best player and toughest to stop. He stayed true to his word after the game, saying Wilcox owned the Illini inside and simply said, "he's great."
NBA scouts who have visited the Terps in practice were back courtside Tuesday night. They didn't hesitate to call the 6-foot-10 forward the best athlete on the floor, maybe the only "true athlete." One scout even called his play, "seductive," because of the way he runs the court and alters shots.
Wilcox did it in droves, especially in a first-half runaway. He ran away (literally) from anyone on the Illini, getting down court for dunks. Then again, dunking the ball had been his forte, but he's stretching his game out to the middle of the lane. And he's trying to be more relentless on the backboard, getting second and third shots, beating opponents back to the backboard.
"He's capable of going up twice very quickly, getting a dunk or getting the ball back and getting up a second jump before someone else and that's special," Williams said.
But the rap on being just a dunker is fading. Wilcox was more active than the more heralded Lonny Baxter (five points in 18 minutes) and the more hyped Holden (two points in 29 minutes).
"A lot of times I'm on the court and I hear players say, 'Ah, he can't do anything but jump,'" Wilcox said. "But I'm taking jump shots and starting to feel the game more. Most of my points come from dirty baskets. My knowledge of the game and my conditioning has really improved. Coach kept telling me to beat everyone down the floor because Illinois didn't want to run with me. I just started running and got open shots and dunks and everything fell into place."
And that was a first. Wilcox wasn't too pleased with his minutes last season, even with the Terps making a Final Four run. He averaged 8.6 minutes last season, got only six against Duke in the national semifinal, two against Stanford in the Elite Eight, five against Georgetown in the Sweet 16. He only saw double figures in points once, when he had 13 against Florida State in a game the Terps lost at home.
But he didn't pull a Danny Miller and bolt (to Notre Dame or anywhere else). He stuck it out, took Williams' verbal heat and it's paying off, mainly because he wasn't ready.
He is now.
"I'm happy how coach played me, although at first I was mad about it (last season)," said Wilcox, who set his first of many career highs with 16 points and 10 boards against Delaware State last week.
"He's bringing me along gradually and didn't put all the pressure on me right away," Wilcox adds. "I can see a huge difference if I play like this. Juan (Dixon) is pushing me and so are Steve (Blake) and Lonny. They want me to stay after practice and work on free throws and do the things I need to so I can stay on the floor."
He shouldn't have a problem unless his free-throw shooting gets downright ugly.
"If he keeps progressing, then that definitely means a lot to us," Holden said. "He makes us a very dangerous team."
Illinois saw it first hand, something the Terps wanted the nation to see when they were only ACC team on the national stage three weeks ago in New York at the season-opening IKON Coaches vs. Cancer Classic. But Arizona upstaged Maryland, beat them and relegated the Terps to the consolation game against Temple.
"Going to the Final Four was different around here because this isn't Duke or Michigan State," Williams said after the Terps won their 80th straight non-conference home game at Cole Field House. "We weren't sure what we were supposed to do in that first game. We thought we were in the Final Four so we must be good, but there were no guarantees. What we did (against Illinois) was good for November, but now who gets better from here on out is the question."
Count on Wilcox being one who definitely improves, and as a result, so will Maryland.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.