Team preview: Maryland
Blue Ribbon Yearbook previews the 2005-06 college basketball season, exclusively on Insider.
Editor's Note: ESPN Insider has teamed with Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook to provide a comprehensive look at all 326 Division I teams. To order the complete 25th anniversary edition of Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, visit www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).
(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)
It's down to this at Maryland: how does this senior class want to be remembered?
Their final season will tell the tale.
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The trio of returning starters -- Nik Caner-Medley, Travis Garrison and Chris McCray -- were bit players on a 21-win team as freshmen, won Maryland's first ACC title in 20 years as sophomores and then were key figures again last year as the Terrapins missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 12 years.
Now minus the mercurial John Gilchrist, who wore out his welcome in College Park but wasn't actually invited into the NBA, the Maryland seniors will decide their legacy this season. Are they the talented trio that can lead Gary Williams' squad back to the NCAA Tournament and make a real run? Or are they the one-hit wonders of the 2004 ACC Tournament, never quite able to recapture that potential they showed that weekend in Greensboro?
"The last couple of years we've only had one senior each of those years," Williams said. "Leadership is really important on any team. These seniors have been together. They've won the ACC championship, they had a disappointing year last year. They have high goals. People remember your senior year, that's the team you're identified with most."
Williams hopes his Terps learned from last season's disappointing finish. While Maryland won 19 games, three wins came in the NIT at home against overmatched opponents. The Terps lost four of their last five regular season games when likely only one or two more wins could have kept the NCAA Tournament streak alive.
Then in the ACC Tournament, finally played in the Terps' backyard in Washington, D.C., Maryland was bounced in the first round, losing to last-place Clemson in the first game of the tournament. It was one of three losses to the Tigers last year.
"Hopefully their experience last year will benefit them," Williams said. "You can learn a lot from a season like that."
What the Terrapins learned was that they could be painfully inconsistent. The three losses to Clemson, a total implosion on a road trip to North Carolina and Wake Forest and a lopsided loss to N.C. State at home were low lights. But this team was also capable of marvelous basketball at times.
Maryland beat Duke twice, including a 75-66 win at Cameron Indoor Stadium when the Blue Devils were ranked second in the country and undefeated. The Terps beat Georgia Tech and Temple at home and squashed Memphis early in the season when the Tigers were ranked.
But there were serious chinks in the Terrapins' armored shell. Maryland was last in the ACC in scoring defense (76.8 ppg) and seventh in three-point field goal percentage defense (.355). The season-ending knee injury to D.J. Strawberry 14 games into the year took away the team's best defender and a tremendous catalyst off the bench.
On offense, Maryland's .439 field goal percentage was a 37-year low. A Gary Williams Maryland team had never shot less than 44 percent. Part of the problem was Gilchrist, who often played conflicted on how much to interject his own offense while trying to balance an attack that had four double-figure scorers.
The fiery Williams, a former point guard himself, often clashed with the moody Gilchrist, even benching the streaky junior at mid-season after the debacle at North Carolina and Wake Forest. Later in the year, Gilchrist hurt his ankle in the ACC Tournament against Clemson and though he seemed well a week later, never returned to the floor during the four-game NIT run.
Junior college transfer Sterling Ledbetter, a fourth senior in this year's mix if he survives academically, took over and ran the team, although not impressively. Caner-Medley had a career year, but he often seemed overmatched defensively against the array of talented small forwards in the unforgiving ACC. Garrison, who needed to morph into a consistent low post threat, never seemed to truly take to the role. He shot just 44 percent from the field and rarely showed the dominance on the backboard that keyed the 2004 ACC title run.
McCray boasted career highs of 14.1 points and .457 shooting from the field and was easily Maryland's most consistent player. But he still canned just 32 percent from three-point range, and can't shake the comparisons to higher-scoring Maryland two guards of recent vintage like Juan Dixon and Drew Nicholas. A run-in with the police just before the start of school has also cast McCray -- an elected team captain -- in a poor light and will result in some sort of disciplinary measure.
Gilchrist's inevitable departure was part of tremendous turnover in the Terrapin program. Ninth-year assistant coach Dave Dickerson finally got a head job, taking off for Tulane. First-year assistant and former Catholic head coach Mike Lonergan landed a D-I head job at Vermont. The exodus also included the program's graduate assistant coach, strength and conditioning coach, academic advisor and sports information director, all of whom left for better jobs.
Williams quickly tabbed his former Boston College point guard Michael Adams and respected Charlotte assistant Rob Moxley as successors for the coaching jobs, and retained former Terp Keith Booth, who is becoming a fine assistant in his own right.
Adams owns the NBA record for consecutive games with a three-point field goal and Moxley is a noted teacher of that phase of the game, and that's certainly not a coincidence. Williams wants to see last year's .332 shooting from three-point range, a figure ranked 10th in the ACC, go up. The Terps hit just .318 in ACC games and that won't get it done in this still guard-heavy league.
Williams has also entrusted Moxley as the program's recruiting coordinator and Maryland already has two early commitments for 2006 in point guard prospect Eric Hayes of Dumfries, Va., and swingman Landon Milbourne of Roswell, Ga.
Williams says Moxley's recruiting efforts at Charlotte helped turn the 49ers into a perennial NCAA contender, and that caught his eye. Adams' NBA experience gives him instant cache with college players and Booth still has that fire that typified his playing days at Maryland.
As for himself, Williams could be content with a national championship in 2001-02, that elusive ACC title in 2004, and a track record that has him considered among the best in his business. But that's not Williams' style. The 60-year-old coach is showing no signs of letting up. The competitive juices are still flowing. Referees and lazy players beware.
"The best time of the year for me is October 15 until your first game," Williams said. "Because that's when you create your team. The team comes together if it's going to come together."
And Maryland couldn't have anyone better putting it together.
Parrish Brown's late signing last spring reflected the desperate situation at point at Maryland. With Gilchrist gone, and Ledbetter unsteady in his four-game NIT trial, Brown was quickly signed. Also recruited hard by Illinois, he's a legitimate talent, though more of a combo guard than a true point. His ability to convert and become a floor leader will heavily impact Maryland's fortunes.
"He's very strong, very tough mentally and physically on the court," Williams said. "He gives us a guy who is a confident player and who has a little more experience than a freshman coming in."
Brown's coach at Kennedy King, Garland Dildy, described his star guard as "coachable," and that may be one of the traits most appealing to the Maryland staff after dealing with Gilchrist. Another upside could be Brown's quickness and how his on-the-ball-pressure might improve Maryland's halfcourt man-to-man defense, a disappointment last year.
Brown can shoot from the perimeter but loves to slash to the basket. He was a JUCO All-Region IV selection, a candidate for All-America honors and showed up on several Top 25 junior college prospect lists. Williams particularly likes Brown's strength and his aggressiveness.
Certainly Adams will be given free reign to mold Brown into the kind of floor leader Williams wants, one that can set the tempo on defense and involve his teammates on offense. If he turns out to be a true three-point threat, all the better.
"He's really a point guard that can shoot the ball a little bit," Williams said.
Maryland can't afford for Brown to have too much of a learning curve at the point. He has to hit the ground running and gear for the gauntlet of ACC guards who can make life miserable. Several ACC star guards are gone, but there's still a lot of talent running the show at most league schools and Brown has to find that level to play at night in and night out.
The soft-spoken Chris McCray ran afoul of the law in late August, getting involved in a near street fight that authorities broke up. The ugly incident seemed out of character for McCray, who was the steadiest of the Terps last season and a quiet leader who had been chosen team captain.
If anything, Maryland coaches would have liked to see a little more fight from McCray on the floor, where he has yet to blossom into the big-time scoring threat everyone forecast. He has a sweet, albeit inconsistent shooting stroke and he has the body to slash to the basket and create three-point opportunities in traffic. He has never been as aggressive as a player of his offensive skills should be, though, and his tentative nature, his reluctance to take shots, has often contributed to Maryland's offensive problems. "Chris has the chance to be a great shooter, I still believe that," Williams said. "He has been close but he hasn't been able to do it on a consistent basis."
If all goes well for McCray as far as the August incident, he will likely be one of the key recipients of that three-point shooting know-how Adams and Moxley can provide. While Moxley was at Charlotte, the 49ers led Conference USA in three-point shooting four of the last six seasons and one of his players led the league individually all seven years he was on staff.
McCray hasn't hit better than 31 percent behind the arc the last two years, and though he's a streaky shooter other teams must respect, the Terrapins need a little more from him. In the past, Dixon and Nicholas always seem to hit the back breaking threes to break games open, and like McCray, they were great defenders.
McCray's long arms and lean body make him a one-man zone defense against smaller foes. Williams regularly puts him on the other team's top perimeter scoring threat and he has turned in banner efforts limiting the likes of J.J. Redick and Julius Hodge. McCray is deceptively strong and he can play at the point if pressed into duty there.
He has always been a team-first player, perhaps to his own detriment. Everyone seems to want him to shoot more and become more aggressive on offense. McCray's defense has always been good enough to earn him major minutes, but there's no doubt that when he's connecting from long range and scoring in transition, the Terps are at their best.
Like McCray, Nik Caner-Medley went through a similarly embarrassing offseason incident in his hometown last summer and all he did was come back and post career numbers for the Terrapins, leading the team in scoring and earning third team All-ACC honors.
Caner-Medley also led the team in minutes, starts and three-pointers made and scored in double figures in 27-of-32 games. His shot became a little more consistent and he seemed to pick his spots better on his daring drives to the hoop. His passing improved and he was one of the team's top three rebounders despite playing small forward. Caner-Medley regularly faced a challenge in the ACC going up against some of the best small forwards in the country, usually players that were smaller and quicker. He exploded for 35 points in a win over Temple and led the team in scoring 13 times, but only once in the last seven games when the Terrapin offense struggled. He faced defenses designed to stop him, particularly after Gilchrist went out of the lineup, and he did a much better job handling that pressure than as a sophomore, when he was the lone returning starter.
Caner-Medley is at his best in the full court game, pressing and creating on both ends. He runs the floor as well as anyone and he's a good finisher on the break.
"The one thing about Nik is he doesn't give up," says Williams. "You have to beat him over the head with a board to get him to stop shooting, but sometimes that's a good thing."
Caner-Medley's game would benefit from more of a pass-first point guard and a more consistent threat in the low post. Teams couldn't slough off on him and wait for him to dribble drive when they take away the outside shot.
Again, the Terps are at their best when Caner-Medley is happy and shooting and on top of his game. It's hard to imagine a scenario this season where the Terrapins could be successful without Caner-Medley being a key contributor.
A lot of folks seem to see it that way, too, the senior was chosen to the 2005-06 John R. Wooden Award watch list in the preseason.
James Gist worked his way -- literally worked his way -- into the starting lineup by the end of the regular season last year. His enthusiastic, all-out style of play is something the Terrapins could use a lot more of, particularly around the basket.
It's hard to imagine him not starting or being one of the first guys off the bench this year. He scored a career-high 18 points in that late start against Virginia Tech but then injured his knee the next week in practice.
Gist exceeded expectations a year ago and if he had been in a position to see more playing time in front of several veterans, he might have gotten more consideration among folks around the ACC as one of the league's top freshmen. As is, he's quick, athletic and learning on the job.
"James has a lot of potential and he plays with energy," Williams said. "The experience he got last year will help him this season."
Like so many of his veteran teammates, though, Gist needs to find consistency. At season's end, he had 15 points and seven rebounds in an NIT win over Davidson and then had no points and four rebounds in the next game against TCU.
Gist's up-and-down play was the natural by-product of youth and inexperience. He'll get better and is likely to become a trademark Terp with his fire and tenacity. He's a definite building block for the future and plays with the kind of fury around the basket that Joe Smith and Terence Morris had.
Look for all his numbers to go up this season, whether Williams starts him or brings him off the bench. His two starts last year were both against Virginia Tech, the Hokies without a true center, and Williams opting to match their quickness up front.
Travis Garrison is again the X-factor for the Terrapins. When he's doing the grunt work in the post, Maryland can play with anyone. The quiet, soft-spoken Garrison isn't a verbal leader and some games he just gets lost, the flow of the game seemingly too fast for him.
It's perhaps significant that Garrison had just two 20-point games last year and just one against an ACC foe (20 at Virginia). He did have a huge 17-point, 11-rebound game in the home win over Duke. The maddening thing is that Garrison is a great free-throw shooter (.819), and if he could just use his body and quickness to get off more shots down low, he could make a living at the free-throw line.
Of course Garrison is also one of the Terps' best shooters from three-point range (.375) and perhaps that's what he's thinking about out there. He also came to love the short fall-away jumper off the curl in the paint, but his future in the college game has to be going to the basket, not falling away.
"Travis, when he plays his game, he's as good as you're going to see in the ACC," Williams said. "He has to do it every game now. That will be his goal and you're not always going to play exactly the same but you can always be a good defensive, inside player. You can always be a rebounder and hopefully the shooting will be there most of the time."
Encouragingly, Garrison picked up the pace in the NIT after a three-point, three-rebound debacle against Clemson in the ACC Tournament. He averaged 12.5 points and 10.5 rebounds the final four games. Granted that wasn't against ACC-caliber competition every night, but it's a start.
Garrison's game could get a boost from the continued emergence of junior center Will Bowers as a low-block force. If Bowers can get those close-in hoops with his back to the basket, Garrison could be free to show more of his all-around game, and that might just loosen him up and get him playing with more confidence.
At the other end, Garrison has had a tendency to play defense with his arms too much and get in foul trouble. If he has come back from the offseason stronger and with improved footwork, that could also help his game and the Maryland cause.
Williams often called D.J. Strawberry his "sixth starter," and there was a lot of truth in that assessment. Strawberry was nearly always the first Terp off the bench and no one the last two years has been better at coming in and sparking the team. His quickness always seems to speed the game and that's generally a good thing for Maryland.
Strawberry is a remarkably intuitive defender with quickness, long arms and great anticipation. His loss to a knee injury in the 14th game was a devastating blow, but he was back to full speed workouts and playing pick-up this August after ACL surgery last spring. Strawberry says the time away from the game, watching from the bench and studying tape, has made him a smarter player.
That's a good omen, as he may have to play some more point guard this season if Brown and/or Ledbetter struggle. Offensively, Strawberry gets most of his baskets in transition. He'll work with Moxley and Adams this preseason to improve his perimeter shot, one of the few things sub-par in his game.
"He's gotten stronger with the weight-lifting he did as he recovered," Williams said. "The toughest thing with the ACL is for the player to believe he is okay. Everything you do in basketball, your knees take so much pressure there comes a point, where in your mind, it has to go away and you get confidence. The more you play the easier it is, and that's where D.J. is."
The Terrapins have more confidence with D.J. playing. Maryland was 10-4 when Strawberry went down and 9-9 without him.
Big Will Bowers was one of the most pleasant surprises of last season, more than doubling his scoring and rebounding averages from his freshman year. Bowers gave the Terps an inside presence against bigger foes and he banged fearlessly on defense and sometimes generated enough offense to help the team. To continue that development, the Terps packed him off to Pete Newell's famed Big Man Camp in Las Vegas this summer, and that experience should make him even better.
"People forget how much he improved last year," Williams said. "If he can continue to improve like that & he had some really good games for us. There aren't many guys his size, so he could be a very valuable player for us this year."
Bowers gave Maryland quality minutes against Shelden Williams in both wins over Duke, and he even ended up starting 10 games. Williams, Gary that is, is right: There aren't many players as big as Bowers, and even fewer play with his hustle and drive. He could be a big factor for Maryland this season.
Ekene Ibekwe has an enticing combination of size and quickness, but he has to get stronger in his upper body to bang with opposing post men on the block. He could also use a little more polish on an unusual shooting technique that hasn't served him well from the perimeter or at the free-throw line.
Those problems aside, Ibekwe can change the flow of a game with his quickness on the offensive glass or with his long reach and shot blocking on the defensive end. He led the Terps and ranked among the ACC leaders in blocks last year and he shows signs of blossoming into a rebounding terror.
Ibekwe would seem a natural to provide some of those low-post baskets Maryland so desperately needs but he doesn't have a go-to move down low or the strength to muscle through opposing defenders. And when he does get to the free-throw line, he hits just 55 percent.
Ibekwe can still bring a crowd to its feet with a thunderous dunk or huge block, and his best basketball is still ahead of him.
Mike Jones came to Maryland as one of its most heralded signees. His statistics and playing time certainly haven't matched the expectations, but some of that has been circumstance, playing on a wing already crowded with McCray, Strawberry and Caner-Medley.
Last year, Jones' improved defense earned him more playing time and he turned in eight double-figure scoring games, including an 11.6 points-per-game average in five post-season games when he shot 47 percent from the field and 38 percent from three-point range.
Jones can get red-hot at the drop of a dime, and shoot opponents right out of the game. Williams would like to find ways to get him more minutes. Jones' aggressive offense always seems to lift Maryland, much as Strawberry's defense does. Jones just has to avoid the lapses in concentration that draw the coach's ire.
We may never know how good Sterling Ledbetter could be. A serious car accident in the spring of 2004 nearly killed him and derailed his preparation for his first season at Maryland. Then a groin injury sidelined him in the early season and it seemed Ledbetter was battling up hill all year.
He never seemed to fully regain the strength and the quickness that made him so highly regarded at Allegany. Ledbetter got his chance to run the show in the NIT with Gilchrist out and he averaged just 6.4 points and 4.2 assists, but the Terrapins were often sluggish. He's not a perimeter shooting threat and he wasn't the lockdown defender Maryland coaches thought they had recruited.
There's the hope the automobile accident injuries and the first-year junior college transfer ups-and-downs are behind him.
Williams compares Shane Clark to D.J. Strawberry in terms of his quickness and raw athleticism. Clark played high school ball in the tough Philadelphia leagues, so he knows good competition and has risen to meet it. He's a prototype wing Terrapin -- long, lean, can run the floor, plays defense and has a reputation as a scrappy fighter.
"Hopefully, he can help us right away," said Williams, looking at Clark's extra year of seasoning at Hargrave (Va.) Military Academy. "He can defend but he's a good offensive player, too. He knows how to play."
If Clark can come in and contribute, he can give Maryland more options to go big or small and he seems like he'll work right in when Williams extends his defense, something that might help this team's intensity game-to-game.
O'Connell averaged 29 wins a year during David Neal's four-year varsity career, and he's a proven winner, hitting seven game-winning shots over that span. "He scored against the best players in the area this past year," Williams said. "He knows the game and he can bang. He's a big guy. And we need to be a little more physical next year. I really think David can help us do that."
Neal is likely to do most of his banging in practice but even that could help toughen up Garrison and Ibekwe, who haven't always been the first guys to stick their noses in the action. Williams also likes Neal's offensive potential, citing his ability to get open and hit a variety of shots.
Neal is a sleeper that could pan out, but if he plays a lot this year, something has probably gone horribly wrong for the Terrapins.
Questions: Changing of the guard? Gilchrist, the face of the Terrapins the last two years, is gone. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
Terrapin tough? Are these soft-shell Terrapins or can Maryland regain its swagger on defense and re-establish some toughness in the paint?
Senior discount? The inconsistent trio of Caner-Medley, Garrison and McCray have to take on a leadership role by example and take the Terrapins back to the NCAA Tournament or many of their achievements will be discounted.
Answers: The quick answer! Maryland is quick and deep, particularly on the perimeter, and that could mean a return to full-court pressure defense to dictate tempo.
Straight shooting! Williams' staff hires in the offseason seem tailor-made to help the Terps become better shooters, particularly from the perimeter. The athleticism is there to rebound and defend. Improved shooting is the next step.
Garyland! Williams' track record -- hey, when 19 wins is a "down" season, what does that tell you? -- is proven. His players improve every year in the program and his competitive fire simply won't let Maryland drop off much.
The dirty little secret about Maryland is that the Terrapins need to recruit a little better. Williams has made a living getting unheralded players and molding them into winners. Please see Dixon and Lonny Baxter.
What the Terps could really use, though, is a couple more blue-chippers here and there to go toe-to-toe with the league's bluebloods at Carolina and Duke.
Williams' staff has undergone a complete face-lift the last two years and that could be a good thing -- recruiting-wise and with some new voices trying to coax some consistency out of this talented, but hard-to-figure senior class. On paper, the mix seems strong enough to place Maryland in the ACC's upper echelon, but it hasn't always worked out that way.
The Terrapins need to play tougher, defensively on the perimeter and particularly in the paint. If Garrison and Ibekwe can't do it, then look for Bowers and Gist to get more time. Caner-Medley and McCray have improved each year and another step this season could make them elite players. But they have to do it every night.
Honestly, the Terrapins have too many nice kids. They need to get a little meaner, play with a little more hunger. Maybe last season's embarrassment, missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 12 years, will be the catalyst to make them mad.
If not, Gary Williams will be mad enough for all of them.
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