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Maryland Turns It Around

February 7, 2008 Columns No Comments



Not The Same Maryland Team

by Phil Kasiecki

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. – Back in December, it was hard to imagine that Maryland would be 5-3 in ACC play and right there in the battle for third place behind Duke and North Carolina. But after Wednesday night’s 70-65 win over Boston College, that’s where the Terrapins stand.

It was hard enough to imagine Maryland contending even in October. The Terrapins start three sophomores and have six freshmen on the team, to go with a pair of seniors in the starting lineup. If not for a seven-game winning streak to end the regular season, they wouldn’t have made the NCAA Tournament last season.

Early on, there were signs that they wouldn’t be a bad team, but perhaps an also-ran in the ACC. They barely knocked off a young Northeastern team in overtime, then lost to UCLA and Missouri in Kansas City at the CBE Classic before beating Illinois. They were, for the most part, beating the teams they should, but then a close loss to Boston College in their ACC opener started a string of three straight home losses. The other two came at the hands of Ohio and rebuilding American.

At that point, the Terrapins were 6-6, and the three straight home losses were not good. That was a point where they could have gone into the tank, but instead, they reeled off four straight wins to close non-conference play before their first half of ACC play.

“I think we had two ways to go,” said head coach Gary Williams. “We could try to get better, or we could just say we’re not going to be very good this year because we have six freshmen on the team this year.”

It’s clear that they have gone the former route, and along the way, they haven’t lost sight of the goal. Greivis Vasquez, who looked every bit a special player in Wednesday night’s win, said making the NCAA Tournament is their goal. If they can finish third or fourth in the ACC, which is realistic given how wide-open the ACC is after Duke and North Carolina (and they have defeated the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill), they could certainly make it. The Terrapins are as good a pick to finish there as anyone.

And if they get there, you can credit the six freshmen to a good degree for how the team moved on after they were 6-6.

“I thought our freshmen realized that it’s important for us and for them to play hard,” said Vasquez, who scored 25 points and handed out eight assists on Wednesday. “They’re helping us out a lot, and we need those guys.”

There’s still plenty more for them to do at this point, though. After seniors James Gist and Bambale Osby and sophomores Vasquez, Eric Hayes and Landon Milbourne, there’s a sizeable drop-off in production. Part of the problem is that they are giving away possessions, as no ACC team turns the ball over more. On the bright side, they have improved in that regard over the course of the season.

Give Williams credit for how he has managed the team through this and handled the scrutiny. Last year, there was speculation that his job could be in danger when it looked like the Terrapins would miss the NCAA Tournament yet again, and all he did was calmly coach them back to the NCAA Tournament. He’s calmly handled the questions about this season’s team and doesn’t look shaken or negatively affected in any way by it, and perhaps that is one reason the Terrapins have started to come alive as well.

Vasquez showed plenty of promise last season, and if Wednesday night is any indication, he’s only getting better. He showed a terrific feel for the game, finding ways to get to the basket and making an array of great passes on the move. His jumper has been inconsistent, although he knocked down a key shot from long range Wednesday night. It’s not a secret that he’s a great competitor as well.

As important as he is to this team, he’s also symbolic of this team’s big question mark: experience. He is still a sophomore, as is their other point guard, Hayes, who missed three games due to injury last month. While Vasquez is the one who will have the ball in his hands late in the games, he’s quick to admit that he can’t be as effective if he’s always playing 37, 38 minutes a game and that’s one reason they need their younger players to contribute. A senior echoed a similar sentiment.

“They’ve given us positive minutes game in and game out,” said Gist, who had 23 points on 9-11 shooting against BC as he continues to have a solid senior campaign. “As long as we can get positive contributions off the bench, it’s going to help our team out.”

Williams says this team has shown a lot of toughness to rebound from where it was in December. The toughness would seem to come in part from Osby, a post player who wasn’t an ACC player in the minds of many when he was in high school. He was undersized and not the best post scorer, but he’s always been tough inside and competes. That’s no different now as he helps lead this young team, as his toughness seems to have caught on.

“What I’ll remember about this team is our toughness,” said Williams. “We had to be tough to come back from that, because we were really criticized, and probably rightly so.”

With the win over North Carolina to go with four others in ACC play, the Terrapins aren’t getting criticized quite as much. Indeed, if last season’s finish is any indication, along with how far they’ve come to this point, the criticism could die off by the time March rolls around.

     

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