Challenges await young Hoosiers, Terps
Two years ago, Maryland and Indiana played in the final game of 2002.
This week, both teams face critical shifts in their rebuilding process.
The outcome of games this week certainly won't determine their postseason fate. Both teams are extremely young and a few losses in the non-conference season could easily be forgotten as they mature and gain confidence during the ACC and Big Ten seasons, respectively.
How they play this month, not just how many wins they pick up, could go a long way in determining where each ends up in March.
Maryland, ranked 25th in the ESPN/USA Today poll, beat No. 13 Wisconsin in overtime on Tuesday night in the fifth annual ACC/Big Ten Challenge. But it was only the start of a tough week, which sees the Terrapins co-host the BB&T Tournament in Washington D.C., on Saturday, where they'll open against No. 24 Gonzaga and play either George Washington or West Virginia on Sunday.
Unranked Indiana, meanwhile, was routed by No. 16 Wake Forest, 100-67 on Tuesday night. The Hoosiers return from Winston Salem to host ... No. 5 Missouri on Saturday.
"We'll learn a lot over the next week," said Maryland sophomore Nik Caner-Medley.
"These are big out-of-conference games," adds Caner-Medley, whose Terps continue a tough stretch of early tests next week with a game at Florida (Dec. 10). "We'll find out our strengths and weaknesses. This will be a huge stretch for us."
"We knew we wouldn't go undefeated with this schedule," said Indiana coach Mike Davis, whose Hoosiers (2-2) rebounded from a loss at Vanderbilt to beat Xavier in overtime Saturday in the John Wooden Tradition at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. December doesn't get any easier after this week for Indiana, either, as it still has a game at Notre Dame (Dec. 10), hosts Butler (Dec. 13) and plays traditional rival Kentucky in Indianapolis (Dec. 20).
"If we go 7-4 with this schedule, that's a heck of a feat," Davis said. "We're confident, but we're trying to get ready for the Big Ten.I thought I would have another (big-time recruit) here, but this is the way we laid out the schedule, so we'll play it this way."
Like Davis, Maryland's Gary Williams isn't afraid to take chances in the non-conference. Maryland (4-0) traditionally will play more home games than Indiana, but going up against Wisconsin, Gonzaga and at Florida over eight days will be as tough a stretch as a young Terp team has gone through under Williams.
"We're hoping with this schedule that we won't be intimidated when we walk into Florida," Williams said.
Williams' biggest concern with a roster that features five freshmen, four sophomores and just one senior in Jamar Smith, is who will ultimately become the Terps' go-to player when games get tight late. It just might be that senior Smith, who scored a career-high 25 points and made the go-ahead basket against Wisconsin with 58 seconds to play in OT.
In victories against American, George Mason and Hofstra, Williams hasn't had to make such a choice during a timeout huddle. But, he's convinced that guard Chris McCray has the makeup to be the Terps' big-time scorer. McCray hit a pair of big jumpers late in regulation against the Badgers and finished with his own career high with 15 points.
Caner-Medley, meanwhile, would like to volunteer to be "the guy." He had just seven points, but several huge rebounds Tuesday night -- not to mention, sinking the second of two free throws to send the game into overtime.
"We haven't had a situation in the last few minutes where somebody has to take that shot. We don't know who is willing to step up in that situation," Caner-Medley said prior to Tuesday's win. "I've been taught in basketball that you should want the ball in your hands in that situation. Some people only want it when their team is up by 20 points. I love having the ball in my hands.
"I was behind those players last year like Drew Nicholas. But I look forward to those situations. I'll want the ball in my hands."
Caner-Medley, who averaged only 5.9 points a game last season as a freshman, is leading the Terps in scoring with 17 points a game. Smith, a 6-foot-9 forward also averaged 5.9 points last season, and is second on the team this year in scoring (14.7 ppg). Point guard John Gilchrist is third at 10 points a game. Williams' potential breakout star in McCray is averaging 9.3 points a game.
As for Maryland's defense, it's been solid -- as expected under Williams. (Maryland held American to eight first-half points). But, again, Maryland's offensive output as this month continues into the start of ACC play will determine where this team ultimately finishes. The Terps are young, and Williams is eventually going to loosen the reins on freshman Mike Jones. Williams is also confident he'll get more than he thought out of freshman D.J. Strawberry's quickness on the press (and ultimately on fast-break situations).
But the key remains McCray, who averaged 3.1 points as a freshman
"He's got to have that breakout game," Williams said prior playing Wisconsin. The 6-5 McCray is a proven scorer at Fairmont Heights H.S., where he averaged 26.8 ppg. "He's gotten good looks so far. He's getting the shots, and he's a good enough shooter to do it."
Indiana has its go-to scorer -- Bracey Wright. What the Hoosiers need is a point guard who can get Wright and others the ball, which is why Wright assumed the point-guard duties after IU's loss at Vandy.
Wright is certainly talented enough to play the point. Wright scored 27 points, grabbed seven rebounds and had three assists in his debut at the point against Xavier (an 80-77 win in OT). He scored 24 of the Hoosiers' 67 points against Wake, taking just 13 shots from the field and making all nine of his free throw attempts. Wright said last week that he had to jump start the offense while still getting shots for himself. Against Xavier, he was able to accomplish his goal.
Wright scored the Hoosiers' last five points in regulation and eight of Indiana's 13 in overtime. But just as Indiana appeared to have solved its problem at the point, Davis must now turn his attention to filling a big void inside. The Hoosiers begin their tough stretch of games in December without senior center George Leach, who is out indefinitely with a knee injury.
That void might be filled by Sean Kline, who will have to log major minutes in place of Leach, and is off to a torrid start by his standards. Kline is second on the team in scoring (9.7) and tied for second in rebounding (6.3).
While not as young as the Terps, the IU roster does feature three freshmen and three sophomores. And with Leach out, the only senior logging major minutes is forward A.J. Moye, who said prior to the win over Xavier that the Hoosiers weren't being patient enough on offense. Moye said Vanderbilt exposed the Hoosiers by stepping into the passing lanes as Indiana remained too stationary in their halfcourt offense. Moye, however, wasn't fretting about the Hoosiers' defensive effort.
"We've got a lot of growing up to do," Moye said of the five-game stretch in which the Hoosiers will have played at Vanderbilt, Xavier, at Wake Forest, Missouri and at Notre Dame. "Sometimes we got caught looking too much for Bracey, and we can't do that."
"There were stretches in that (Vandy) game where everyone was standing around watching what I was going to create on offense," Wright said. "But having me at the point can give me the chance to get everyone involved. I've got to pick my spots and stay aggressive."
Even before Leach's injury, Davis was moving the lineup around with Marshall Strickland being shifted into more of a scoring guard now that Wright is handling the ball more. Davis said he would need to get more time for Patrick Ewing Jr. (seven minutes a game so far) and Jessan Gray-Ashley (one minute in one game), two forwards who will have to play more because of Leach's absence.
"I knew this would take a while because we're so young," Davis said. "But we just have to keep this crew together and keep them confident."
Confidence comes with winning, which might not happen every time Indiana or Maryland take the court during the next few weeks. But for two programs that have been to the top, molding these two new groups in December will go a long way toward determining what happens come March.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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