Rout of St. John's shows Maryland's on right track
NEW YORK -- Now Maryland can move on to its next goal: making the NCAA Tournament.
Say what? On Nov. 17, Maryland already is done with its first goal?
Well, yeah. Barring some sort of brain lock over the next three months, the Terps are back to doing what Gary Williams demands: They're playing his style of ball.
From the first possession to the last in Maryland's complete 92-60 undressing of St. John's Thursday in the 2K College Hoops Classic benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer, the Terps played the way Williams has wanted them to (for about the past three seasons).
Maryland's defense swallowed up St. John's with aggressive traps and kept St. John's so flustered that the Red Storm's shots weren't just missing -- they were completely off.
James Gist showed he has a diversified power game. Ekene Ibekwe looked liked he could write a report called, "What I did this past summer for Nigeria in the World Championships in Japan and how I found out how hard I have to play." Mike Jones and D.J. Strawberry proved they can stroke the 3-ball as well as anyone. Oh, by the way, the Terps also proved they have two real point guards in Eric Hayes and Greivis Vasquez, as well as a formidable flusher off the bench in guard Landon Milbourne.
One game, you say? Rubbish. This was a snapshot that showed that the Terps can play the Williams way, and don't think for a second he'll let them forget that for the rest of the season.
"I'm not worried about the NCAA Tournament," Williams said of his program's hiatus from the NCAA Tournament, having spent 2005 and 2006 in the NIT.
"I take a lot of pride in how my team plays -- a lot of pride -- and I didn't like the way we played the last two years," Williams said.
Like it or not, this is may be where you insert the names of John Gilchrist, Nik Caner-Medley, Chris McCray, Travis Garrison and Sterling Ledbetter, all of whom were rotation players the last two seasons.
"We won 19 games [in each of the last two seasons], but we didn't make the [NCAA] Tournament," Williams said. "[What you saw Thursday] was the way I want to play. That's how our teams played. We played with energy, enthusiasm, and then all of a sudden for two years we didn't. I wanted to make sure we did that. Every year, I have a goal as a coach and my goal was to get back to playing that way."
The returning players couldn't agree more. Just listen to Strawberry, who was forced to play the point last season instead of his more natural off-guard position, where he can freelance as a shooter and focus on his stellar defense.
"Last year, we played a little bit selfish," Strawberry said. "Everybody was trying to get their own stuff and fill up the stat sheet. Now, we're playing basketball the way coach Williams wants us to play. We're aggressive on defense. We're running the plays right and hitting the open man. We're pressing teams.
"Our chemistry is better this year. We were shaky last year. I was stepping into a new role and I didn't know what to expect. Now everybody knows their roles and we're all having fun playing together. Last year, we weren't. Sometimes we didn't even want to play, and I don't know why."
If that's not a telling statement, then what is?
For Ibekwe, his awakening came in the summer. He declared for the NBA draft, but didn't get a sniff. He played for Nigeria at the FIBA World Championships, where Williams said Ibekwe learned how hard the pros play -- whether they're Americans, Europeans or Africans.
"College players all think they work hard," Williams said. "But Ekene saw really how hard they do work in the pros. He learned a lot over that. This attitude really came about for all of them in the spring when they realized the importance of being a highly conditioned athlete, to be in great basketball shape, lifting weights, and you could see it in the individual workouts. I'm not sure we wanted that last year."
Ibekwe said, "I saw the hard work those guys I played with on the Nigerian team put in and that was something I had to take with me into the season. I'm not too anxious and I'm having fun out there, too. We're playing defense the way we love to play it. We're taking charges. And on offense we're making the extra pass. We want to keep playing like that."
Williams reminded everyone that this St. John's game was on Nov. 16, and a year ago, the Terps didn't even open up the season until a week later with a game against Fairleigh Dickinson, before heading to the Maui Invitational.
Still, Williams has a composite picture of this game and he's not about to let it fade.
"This shows a lot of promise for our team and it shows we can play at a certain level," Williams said.
So regardless what happens to the Terps against Michigan State here Friday night, the Terps are back to playing Williams ball. Sure, it's a long, long season, and Maryland still has plenty of scheduling hot spots ahead, but the Terps get it now. With three seniors, a junior and a freshman point guard (Hayes) who understands Williams' intentions better than Gilchrist ever did two years ago, Maryland shouldn't lose its way again.
"We definitely want to get this program back to the NCAA Tournament," Ibekwe said. "Me, D.J. and Mike haven't been there since our freshman year and we want to go out with a bang. The way we're playing right now, we'll definitely get there."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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