COLLEGE PARK -- Juan Dixon is a freshman who is talking a lot like a senior these days and making a strong bid for a starting position for the slumping Maryland basketball team.
"This has to be our year," the smooth 6-foot-2 guard from Calvert Hall said as the Terps (19-4, 7-3) prepared for today's 1 p.m. Atlantic Coast Conference game against Virginia (13-10, 3-7) at Cole Field House.
"I want it [Final Four] now. This is a great team and we can't waste this opportunity. I may never get another chance to play on a talented team like this. I'm not even looking forward to next year or thinking about it."
Dixon has shown in the first 23 games he can provide a lot of what the seventh-ranked Terps have been missing lately in back-to-back thrashings by Wake Forest and Duke.
He plays hard every minute, is fearless no matter the opponent or site, surprises opponents with his ability to mix it up inside with the big guys, deals well with pressure, and gets a kick out of shooting three-pointers.
In fact, Maryland coach Gary Williams has given Dixon the green light to shoot threes any time no matter how many he has missed.
"Coach Williams knows I love the threes and he has given me free reign," said Dixon, whose 27 three-pointers lead the team.
When asked how he is able as a freshman to go into hostile environments in the ACC or anywhere else and defy the crowds with cooly calculated shots from beyond the arc, Dixon said, "Because I'm having fun out there playing the game. This should be fun for everybody on the team. It's what we've done for a long time."
Dixon is fifth on the team in scoring with 8.2 points in 15.6 minutes a game, is averaging 2.8 rebounds, has 39 steals and 36 assists.
But he has yet to start a game.
Six days ago in Winston-Salem, N.C., he lit up Wake Forest for a team-high and career-high 18 points along with five rebounds and two assists in 21 minutes off the bench. He hit four of seven three-point attempts in the loss.
That performance touched off speculation that Dixon might move into the starting lineup at shooting guard with Steve Francis going to point guard, where he has supposedly been headed since the season started.
But Williams does not appear ready to take senior point guard Terrell Stokes out of the starting lineup.
"Juan will continue to get a lot of minutes in the regular rotation," Williams said. "Juan Dixon has a great future here. He plays hard no matter what happens out there. Be it a turnover or a missed shot, he keeps on going full speed. It's important for other players on the team to see that."
Dixon's eyes light up at the mention of starting, but he said, "That is the coach's decision. I just do what I can when I come off the bench. It's a great feeling to contribute like I did at Wake Forest, but we didn't win."
In order to break their recent skid, Dixon said Maryland has to "leave it all on the court for 40 minutes every night like we did in Puerto Rico and against Stanford."
While some have blamed Stokes for the two straight losses, Dixon defended him.
"It's hard to be a leader and hard for Terrell to keep everybody going," Dixon said.
Meanwhile, Williams seized a golden opportunity yesterday to come to the defense of his team in the aftermath of Thursday night's rash of upsets among teams ranked in the top 12.
"We're not the only ones losing," Williams said. "But the way people around here talk, you wouldn't know that other top teams are having some trouble. The people and media around here are fickle. They're overreacting to the situation."
Fifth-ranked Kentucky, No. 10 Arizona and No. 12 North Carolina were beaten Thursday night, bringing the total to six Top 25 squads that have lost this week. The others are No. 1 Connecticut, Maryland and No. 25 St. John's.
More trouble could be on the way for Maryland today as Virginia comes to Cole on a three-game winning streak that includes a 64-54 victory over Wake Forest, which just thumped the Terps, 85-72.
Site: Cole Field House, College Park
Time: 1 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)
Line: Maryland by 21
Pub Date: 2/06/99