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Monday, November 4, 2002
Updated: November 11, 9:49 AM ET
For Terps, it's just like starting over

By Andy Katz

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Gary Williams wasn't yelling, just correcting. He couldn't get in anyone's face, not yet, not with five newcomers still learning the Terps' offense, their vaunted full-court press, and even simple things like calling out the number of passes on a three-man weave drill.

Williams was teaching because these Terps aren't last year's national champions. This team needed more instruction in Saturday's practice than maybe last year's squad required throughout last season.

Yes, the 2002 championship belongs to Williams, Maryland and the four remaining seniors -- Steve Blake, Drew Nicholas, Tahj Holden and Ryan Randle. The players can boast about last year when they want outside of practice. But what happened in 2001-02 isn't going to do much good this season, other than sparkle up, perhaps, the country's most luxurious on-campus arena when the championship banner is raised in the new Comcast Center on Nov. 24 against Miami of Ohio.

Steve Blake
Steve Blake is the lone starter returning from Maryland's championship run.

"I've put the ring away," said Williams. "I wore it a lot this summer. But now it's time to focus on this team. But no one will take that away. The seasons run together for coaches, but winning the national championship will always stand out. Those players will always be special because of all the great players who have played at Maryland, they were the only players who did that."

True. Juan Dixon, Lonny Baxter, Chris Wilcox and Byron Mouton did win the title, but they weren't alone. Three of the four present seniors were there, too. It's easy for that to be forgotten, considering that Blake is the only returning starter. Holden, Nicholas and JUCO transfer Randle played major minutes and sometimes finished games last season.

"It's a little anti-climatic," Holden said. "But it's more fun this way. Last year, you knew what everyone could do and what their roles were. We've got new personalities and new playing styles. We'll be more exciting to watch because we'll be more unpredictable. We don't know who is going to step up from night to night."

Three of the four seniors went to the Final Four as sophomores. They won the title as juniors. But, as seniors, they have to deal with a team of five newcomers. Even though they're playing in the equivalent of a college basketball mansion for their final season, what's left to do?

Keep the program atop the ACC and as one of the premier programs in the country.

"That's always hard," Nicholas said. "Very few teams can keep it up at that level, but that's what we came here to do. We came to win a national championship and we accomplished that. But we want another one. We want to prove people wrong. We want to prove that we can be just as good."

Being just as good means going 17-1 in the ACC, winning both the regular-season and conference titles, and becoming the first team to repeat since Duke in 1991 and '92. A tall order for a team returning five starters, let along the Terps.

It's early, way early to make a call on where Maryland will wind up in the ACC or NCAAs, but right now the Terps are still on two speeds. The starting five -- the four newcomers and freshman small forward Nik Caner-Medley -- know what to do, where to go and at what speed. It's clear Caner-Medley has a high basketball IQ, and as a result, he doesn't get too lost with the four experienced seniors, keeps up with dunks or backcuts for layups, and can make corner jumpers.

But the four newcomers playing on the second team -- freshmen John Gilchrist at point, forward Travis Garrison and guard Chris McCray, along with JC transfer Jamar Smith -- are a work in progress. In Saturday's scrimmage, Holden picked Gilchrist clean at midcourt, even though he's some seven inches taller and isn't known for his defense on smaller points. Gilchrist was frustrated, but clearly showed he has the potential to run this team in a reserve role behind Blake. Garrison and Smith can be forceful players in the post with their ability to finish with authority. McCray can snap jumpers, even though he's a bit on the thin side.

Courtside With Katz's Andy Katz is filling his preseason weekends by watching teams scrimmage:
Saturday, Oct. 19
A few leading men should make all the difference in East Lansing.
Saturday, Oct. 26
As good as advertised, Arizona will wear preseason No. 1 well.
Saturday, Nov. 2
The defending champs must shuffle the lineup in defense of the title.
Sunday, Nov. 10
Under the NCAA's new exhibition rules, John Thompson (III) coaches against Georgetown.

"The challenge is to recreate a team," said Williams, sitting in his new, plush office, funished with more hip Maryland red furniture (he had white couches at Cole). "We lose four starters who are pretty good, three in the NBA right now. But we've got four seniors who played in our top eight and who were on the court. We have experience, but the toughest thing is to get the new guys to be on the same page."

The one thing that remains to be seen until Maryland begins its ACC schedule, or maybe it comes against Indiana in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge or against Florida in December, is whether or not Nicholas, Holden and Randle can be go-to players. Blake has always been a point man defensively and taken big shots, but the other three were playing behind Dixon, Baxter and Wilcox.

"That's understandable, because people don't know how good they're going to be," Blake said.

"There's no pressure for me because this is what I wanted for three years,'' Nicholas said. "Steve's been a starter. Me and Tahj have been out there in the last two or three minutes of games. It does benefit us that we're not in one of those preseason things and have another three weeks.

"But in the past four or five years the program has been built up to a point where we're so good every year. We don't want to let that slip. Coach has done a great job with that and he always has talented enough players to get it done."

Williams put together a four-year plan without knowing that he had once he recruited Dixon and Baxter. They weren't all-Americans. Williams said fans and "recruiting gurus running that Internet crap" criticized him for taking them. But Dixon and Baxter were his kind of players, learning behind Steve Francis (Dixon) and Obinna Ekezie (Baxter) and making themselves pros by Year Three.

They won the title in Year Four after getting Maryland to its first Final Four as juniors.

"I wasn't going to recruit over them," Williams said.

"People, players should look at Baxter and Dixon and see that you don't have to be a pro out of high school to be a pro. No one was telling them how good they were until they got good."

The success brought about by Dixon, Baxter and Mouton has allowed Williams to put together what most believe is his best, and highly-rated, recruiting class. But he still found a JUCO gem in Smith, and a more regional than national name in McCray.

"I do a better job coaching if a guy is willing to work," said Williams, who does seem less stressed but even more energized this fall. "I want to be around people who feel the same way about the game as I do. I love the game and hopefully my players love the game, too. If they don't then we'll have a conflict. It's not just about winning, but how the game should be played, the passing, everything."

Still, nothing replaces the experience of knowing how to react within an offense, to the spacing on the break, to the simple things of not coming to the ball. Williams corrected Caner-Medley when he wanted to come to the ball to get it, instead of seeing that if he stayed wide he would have a better chance to score because there would be more spacing in the offense. Williams reminded him that in high school you get the ball, but in college, a good point guard or passing within the offense should get the ball to you.

"That all comes from playing basketball," Williams said. "A lot of guys can play one-on-one, but can't with 10 guys on the court. You can get them in a one-on-one situation, but it's not easy against good teams. You've got to teach players how to play, but they've got to be willing to learn. If they don't want to learn then it doesn't matter. We look at that in recruiting. But you still have to have a certain level of talent to play in the ACC."

Williams has that with this crew. And he's fortunate that every team in the ACC is replacing at least one critical player, making the race as wide open as it has been in years. But, like his coaching rival who's been to the top with Duke, Williams is as driven for a second title as he was for the first.

"The fear of losing drives you because you've worked so hard to get to the point where you win the NCAA," said the 56-year old Williams, who agreed to a new seven-year deal (he said he hasn't signed it but he will) to take him to age 63.

"The fear was there last year when we had a Final Four team return intact and you wonder if you're going to be any good," Williams said. "Now the fear is can we retool a team that lost four starters and make them a good team again. That's the push that keeps you in college coaching. This is what keeps a coach fresh and keeps you working hard."

Andy Katz is a senior writer at