CLEMSON, S.C. -- When the current basketball season began at the University of Maryland, Gary Williams was excited about his team's new-found flexibility and its new-found depth.
The days of using five or six players, as Williams had to do for most of the past two seasons, seemed to be over. The Terrapins coach was going to be able to go three, four, maybe even five players into his bench.
"We can do some things that we haven't been able to do in the past," Williams said during preseason practice.
While Williams has a little flexibility left in his backcourt, he has almost no depth in his frontcourt. And going into tonight's Atlantic Coast Conference game against Clemson (9-5, 0-5) here at Littlejohn Coliseum, Maryland (10-5, 1-4) will need something in reserve if it holds any hope of winning some more league games.
That was never more evident than Saturday in Raleigh, N.C. Despite winning their first ACC game this season, a 70-65 struggle over winless North Carolina State, the Terps nearly ran out of gas down the stretch. The Wolfpack, with eight players, had more quality depth.
"We need a bench," Williams said after the game, won mostly on the heroics of senior guard Kevin McLinton's 27-point performance.
The frontcourt, thinned by the stress fracture to freshman center Nemanja Petrovic, got no rebounds and no points in a combined 13 minutes from sophomore forwards Kurtis Shultz and John Walsh. Also, Williams chose not to play freshman forward Mario Lucas for the second straight game.
jTC The backcourt, with freshman guard Duane Simpkins limited to one blurry minute because of an eye injury suffered Friday in practice, got a little lift from junior Mike Thibeault. The former walk-on from Glen Burnie scored two points in six minutes and, like Shultz, played hard-nosed defense. Williams didn't use sophomore Wayne Bristol for the second straight game.
"Our biggest problem has been up front," Williams said yesterday. "We haven't had anyone to step up offensively to help us. Mario Lucas was able to give us some good games early, but if you don't rebound and if you don't play defense, that's going to kill you in this league. And against a front line as big as Clemson's, we're going to need some help."
The lack of contributions from the bench has been a problem throughout the season for Maryland, but it has been magnified in the team's first five ACC games. Since the opening loss against Georgia Tech, the Terps bench has been outscored 98-26, including 23-4 the past two games.
The freshman backups have had their moments -- Petrovic had 17 points and seven rebounds against Morgan State, Lucas had eight points and four rebounds against Georgia Tech, and Simpkins played well in the win over Oklahoma -- but they have been inconsistent.
"If Duane can play at 100 percent, the way he did against Oklahoma, that will help our depth," said Williams. "We're just playing too many minutes with Johnny [Rhodes] and Kevin."
What has also hurt the Terps has been the lack of development by Walsh and Bristol. Both showed flashes of becoming productive players as freshmen, but neither has followed it up as a sophomore.
It has left Williams with few options other than to go with his starters as long as he did the past couple of years. While seniors McLinton, Evers Burns and Chris Kerwin are used to playing 35 minutes or more in ACC games, freshman starters Rhodes and Exree Hipp are not. It showed against N.C. State, when Rhodes scored a season-low six points and the two combined to shoot six of 21 from the field.
"It's like the same situation as last year," Burns said yesterday. "It's not that I'm not used to it, but I was hoping not to go through that again."