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Terps await a chance to deliver Williams' squad is young, talented


CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A couple of Maryland fans were standing around during halftime of Friday's 102-66 loss to top-ranked, top-seeded North Carolina in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.

With the Terrapins behind by 17 points, one of them said #F jokingly: "We're worried about next year. This year is almost over."

A season that began with high expectations, a season that included non-conference victories over Louisville and Oklahoma, ended its ACC free-fall with the most one-sided ACC tournament loss by a Maryland team in 30 years and the largest margin of defeat since Gary Williams returned to his alma mater four years ago.

It ended with the Terps winning only three ACC games -- all against last-place North Carolina State -- and finishing with a 12-16 record. It was Maryland's second straight losing season and Williams' first back-to-back losing seasons in his 15-year coaching career.

"Our seniors have been through a lot at the University of Maryland," Williams said. "I appreciate their efforts. Our young players have been hot and cold all year. They've made some mistakes, but the future of the program lies with them and our recruits. We'll have a young team again next year, but they're our future."

One of those seniors, point guard Kevin McLinton, recalled what he had said before the season began. Maybe it was wishful thinking. Considering his college career had ended, maybe it was wistful thinking.

"I remember saying when the season was starting that this team had the most potential of any team I had ever been on at Maryland," said McLinton, who had a good enough senior year to earn an invitation to an NBA tryout camp in Portsmouth, Va., next month.

"But we were so young. You can't throw a bunch of guppies in with the sharks."

Despite some enormous potential, players such as Johnny Rhodes, Exree Hipp and Duane Simpkins got swallowed up and spit out on more than one occasion.

But they, along with fellow freshmen Mario Lucas and Nemanja Petrovic, showed enough promise to make Williams excited about the future.

With Friday's oral commitment from Dunbar star Keith Booth, the picture for next season is starting to come into focus. Booth will be the centerpiece of a recruiting class that also includes 6-foot-9 Joe Smith, Maryland's first blue-chip big man since Jerrod Mustaf, and 6-7 Nick Bosnic, who could become the team's three-point shooter.

"Hopefully, we'll get a guy who's really big," said Williams, who might have to dip into the junior college ranks to get the kind of player who will make the Terps a factor in the ACC next winter. "But I think with the players we have in the program and the players coming in, we're going to be a very good defensive team as the year goes on."

Hipp said: "Next year we're going to have a more all-around team. We're going to be quicker. We're going to run more. Hopefully, we'll be able to put more points on the board."

That was something the Terps couldn't do with regularity this season, especially in the ACC. McLinton probably willed more points out of his ability than any other player in the ACC, but his heart could carryMaryland only so far. Senior forward Evers Burns put up solid numbers, but often was overmatched against the likes of Rodney Rogers, George Lynch and Douglas Edwards.

The other problem that became apparent as the season wore on was that Williams had no idea which players would show up on a given game. As a result, he juggled his rotation to the point where players on the bench were confused about their roles. It had a domino effect, and Williams couldn't change the momentum, as he had done in his first three seasons.

"Every time we seemed to make an adjustment to one situation, another one came up," Williams said recently.

The biggest question heading into next season seems to revolve around the team's point guard. Simpkins certainly helped his situation with his play in the ACC tournament, as well as in Maryland's last few regular-season games. But that is not the only question.

Rhodes and Simpkins need to work on their outside shooting. Rhodes, if he becomes a point guard, needs to work on his ball-handling. Hipp and Lucas need to get stronger. Petrovic, who missed the last two months with a stress fracture, needs to get over injuries that have hindered him.

And, collectively, Maryland has to forget this season. Next year will mark the first time Williams will have all his own players and, more importantly, his kind of players. Players who are quick. Players who can help create havoc with his press. Players who can hit a wide-open jump shot.

"We're going to be a different team," Rhodes said.

The Terps may be a different team, but, with a potential starting lineup of freshmen and sophomores, one that still might be a couple of years away.

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