Going into the 2002-03 basketball season, most of the discussion regarding the Maryland Terrapins focused on what would be missing from their 2001-02 National Championship team. They would no longer have the services of the heart of that squad, Juan Dixon. Also gone were starters Lonny Baxter, Chris Wilcox, and Byron Mouton.
Virtually the entire Terrapin roster needed to take on new roles this season. The task was made even more challenging by carrying around the bulls-eye that comes when opponents face the defending national champions.
Coach Gary Williams particularly appreciates the efforts of his seniors, "It's been really rewarding to see them develop as basketball players. They've had to take everyone's best shot as the defending national champions. They've done a great job getting ready to play each time out."
Williams does have one important source of continuity between this season and the championship team—starting point guard Steve Blake. Blake has used his wealth of experience to assume a strong leadership role and expand his game to include more scoring. Blake again led the ACC in assists and added the conference three-point shooting crown and first-team All-ACC honors to his resume.
Wing guard Drew Nicholas, after three years as a reserve, took advantage of the opportunity to start for the first time. Nicholas finished third in the ACC in scoring, earned second-team All-ACC mention, and teamed with Blake to give the Terps one of the toughest and most experienced backcourts in the nation. Maryland fans will never forget his miraculous game-winning shot against UNC-Wilmington in the first round of the NCAA's.
Another senior new to the starting lineup is Ryan Randle. In his second year at Maryland after two years of JUCO ball, Randle was the Terps' best low-post player and leading rebounder (5th in the ACC). He has, however, had problems finishing on the offensive end against bigger front lines.
Senior Forward Tahj Holden saved his best play for late in the season with big games against Maryland's toughest conference rivals, Wake Forest, Duke, and NC State. Surprisingly, he developed into a good shot blocker (2nd in the ACC) and remained a three-point threat from the top of the arc. His physical defensive effort against Xavier's All-American was critical to the Terps' second-round NCAA victory.
Senior Calvin McCall and freshman Nick Caner-Medley split time as the starting small forward. Both are very active players and filled important roles for Maryland this season. Coach Williams often called on McCall when he needed to tighten his team's defense, while Caner-Medley can make spectacular plays on the offensive end. Caner-Medley has also started to show some three-point range toward the end of the season.
Newcomer Jamar Smith made the jump from JUCO to earn a place in Williams' rotation. Smith, a junior forward, gave the Terps a level of athleticism otherwise lacking on the front line. Freshman John Gilchrist, the heir apparent to Blake at point, has played well enough to allow Williams to use a three-guard lineup with some success. He is deceptively strong, able to drive to the hoop and rebound exceptionally well for a point guard.
Freshmen Travis Garrison and Chris McCray received most of the balance of court time this season. Garrison and McCray saw their playing time fluctuate this season, but both contributed to the team's success. Garrison, a forward, started six games and showed a good all-around game. McCray played some very strong defense and had some explosive stretches offensively. He recorded eight steals in an early-season game against Wagner.
Maryland is not a pretty team this year. They are talented, but not as much as their two previous Final Four squads. What they do have in abundance is toughness. The seniors have been determined to earn their own place in school basketball history, and hand down the lessons they learned as younger players to this year's newcomers. Reaching the Sweet 16 far from satisfies them; they are very serious about successfully defending their title.
Gary Williams has built a program at Maryland that needs take a back seat to no other. Rather than rest on his laurels after winning the championship, Williams appears even more driven this season to maintain that level of success. It is that drive that is displayed so well in this Terrapin squad, and is the foundation for it's future success.
If you think that sounds a lot like how Tom Izzo rebuilt the Michigan State program, I would agree with you. This will be a game between two of the toughest and best-coached teams in the nation. It will put the Spartans' inside strength against Maryland's championship experience and veteran backcourt. Michigan State should have the advantage in a grinding half-court game, while Maryland would benefit more from a faster full-court game. It should be a good one!
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