Arrival of pure points pushes Strawberry back to wing
GREENSBORO, N.C. -- During each of the past two seasons, when Maryland ultimately wasn't selected to play in the NCAA Tournament after 11 consecutive trips before the 2004-05 season, the Terrapins weren't sure who was going to handle the basketball.
In 2004-05, point guard John Gilchrist seemed to spend more time rocking the Terrapins' chemistry than he did handling the rock. And when Gilchrist bolted after his junior season, swingman D.J. Strawberry assumed those duties last year, mostly because Maryland had no other reliable option. Strawberry was forced to play the point even more when senior Chris McCray was ruled academically ineligible after only 16 games.
"We've got to handle the ball better," Maryland coach Gary Williams said Sunday during the ACC's Operation Basketball news conference at Grandover Resort.
As Williams tries to get his team back to the tournament this season, he has more than one option at point guard. Freshmen Eric Hayes and Greivis Vasquez have proved to be more than reliable in the first two weeks of preseason practice, so much so that Strawberry isn't worried about having to return there. Strawberry has moved back to the wing, where he is far more comfortable penetrating the basket and defending perimeter players.
"I think I'll be a lot more comfortable," Strawberry said. "Playing point guard last year really helped my ballhandling a lot. It made me do things I've never done before. I think it's going to help the team having another guard out there who can handle the ball."
But if Williams has his way, Hayes and Vasquez will do most of the ballhandling. Vasquez, a 6-foot-5 native of Venezuela, averaged 12.8 points, 7.4 rebounds and 5.9 assists as a senior at Montrose Christian School in Rockville, Md. Hayes played for his father, Kendall Hayes, at Potomac High in Dumfries, Va., averaging 21.3 points and making a whopping 71 percent of his 3-point attempts.
So far in practice, Vasquez has looked more comfortable playing the point and distributing the basketball and Hayes has displayed a sweet shooting stroke the Terrapins desperately need on the perimeter.
"I think they both can play out there [at point guard]," Williams said. "Vasquez is big enough -- he's almost 6-5 -- to where he could play [shooting guard] or [small forward]. Hayes is the son of a basketball coach, and you can really tell he loves the game. He's a very good shooter for a point guard. I don't mind having two point guards out there on the court."
Especially not after what the Terrapins endured last season. During Maryland's 19-13 season in 2005-06, in which it became the first ACC team to be left out of the NCAA Tournament field after going 8-8 in league play and winning a conference tournament game, it had more turnovers than assists. Only Wake Forest had more turnovers than the Terrapins' 528 last season.
Strawberry, the son of former major league baseball player Darryl Strawberry, never seemed comfortable playing point guard. He ranked 10th among ACC players in assist-to-turnover ratio and shot only 42.9 percent from the floor. He started 31 of 32 games at point guard after missing all but 14 games in 2004-05 with a knee injury.
"D.J. had a very good season last year, and because we were 8-8 in the league, he didn't get enough attention," Williams said. "He's played the [J.J.] Redicks of the world and the other All- America-type players. I think he'll be better not having to handle the ball all the time. He's more comfortable on the wing."
Williams hopes taking Strawberry off the point also will improve the Terrapins' defense. They allowed 73.5 points per game last season, most among ACC teams, and opponents shot 36.7 percent on 3-point attempts, third-highest in the league.
"We've always scored enough points," Williams said. "We just didn't play good enough defense. We've gotten hurt from the 3-point line the last couple of years, there's no doubt about it. I'll take that responsibility. Our post defense has to be better. The less you have to help on the post, the more you can defend the perimeter. We've had to spend too much time helping in the post.
"I've always felt if you had the right guys, you can teach them to play defense. I think we have to get back to pressing more. We've had spurts. We're in really good shape right now."
Williams also is counting on improved play from forward Ekene Ibekwe, the team's top returning scorer with 11.1 points per game, who tested the NBA draft waters last spring before returning to school. Ibekwe, a 6-foot-9 senior from Carson, Calif., played this summer on the Nigerian national team and has come back to school stronger. He posted double-doubles in three of the Terps' final 11 games last season and ranks seventh in school history with 142 blocked shots.
"People have told me I've got to be more consistent and more aggressive all the time," Ibekwe said. "I've got to work on my jump shot."
Maryland lost leading scorer Nik Caner-Medley and power forward Travis Garrison, a former McDonald's All-American who never reached his potential in college, but Ibekwe could get help in the post from Bambale Osby, a transfer from Paris (Texas) Junior College. Osby, a 6-foot-8, 250-pound junior, played his freshman season at New Mexico before averaging six points and five rebounds at Paris Junior College last season.
"He wants to be a back-to-the-basket player," Williams said. "Those are hard to find. Everyone is like, 'Coach, I need a jump shot to get to the league.'"
Williams also said senior Will Bowers, a 7-foot-1 senior, is in the best shape of his career. Bowers attended the Pete Newell Big Man Camp this past summer to work on his post moves and footwork. He didn't average more than 2.8 points or 2.6 rebounds in his first three college seasons.
"Will is being more aggressive and asking for the ball in the paint more," Ibekwe said. "He's got a lot more post moves."
First and foremost, though, Williams knows he has to find consistent play at point guard. If not, the Terps might be looking at a third straight postseason in the NIT rather than the NCAAs.
"Once you win the NCAA Tournament [which the Terrapins did in 2002], I think people expect you to get there," Williams said. "We went 11 straight years. I think people thought it was automatic."
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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