COLLEGE PARK -- The new guard's name is Steve, and his basketball teams experienced defeat once in the past two seasons. He has a variety of offensive skills, but he's most comfortable running the point and setting up others. He comes to Maryland well-traveled and highly touted, with a reputation that he backs down from no one.
Unlike Steve Francis, however, Steve Blake doesn't figure to leave Terps fans futilely asking for more next spring.
Francis left for the NBA after one intense season in the Atlantic Coast Conference, but how's this prospect for stability? Coach Gary Williams has given Blake the keys to Maryland basketball, and if the 19-year-old from Miami wants, he can drive the Terps right into March 2003.
Maryland begins a season of transition with another session of Midnight Madness late tomorrow, and Williams has few reservations about trotting out a freshman at the point, because Blake was the glue that held together gaudy collections of talent at different locales the past two years.
"College is a shock for some high school point guards," Williams said. "Typically, they were always the best player on their team, and things revolved around them. This should not be much of an adjustment for Steve. He was in a college atmosphere last year, where everyone came from different places. He already had to make an ad justment to some guys who had egos."
Blake's prep career took him from Florida contender to national power to national champion, and now the 6-foot-3, 175-pound player is charged with keeping happy star forward Terence Morris and everyone else in a perennial NCAA Sweet 16 program. Maryland is his fourth stop in as many years, and he wants to experience what a campus has to offer beyond basketball.
"Going to every place, it's pretty much the same thing, the only people you know are the basketball players," Blake said. "What's nice about being able to settle in here is that I'll get to know everybody, not just the people in the basketball program."
Blake isn't complaining about his basketball travels, which have taken him as far as the 1998 World Junior Championships. Instead, he draws strength from them.
"He's not your average freshman," said Richard Blake, his father. "He knows how to do his laundry."
As a sophomore, Blake led Miami's Killian High to the Florida semifinals. He then joined other prominent transfers at Miami Senior, which had one of the nation's premier teams in 1997-98. State officials, however, ruled that Blake and four others, including Florida center Udonis Haslem, were improperly provided housing.
"I leased from a lady who had gone to school there 50 years ago," Blake's father said. "I did everything I had to do legally. We never got a chance to tell our side of the story, and Steve was guilty until proven innocent."
Miami Senior was stripped of a third straight state 6A title in August 1998, and Blake was banned from playing there as a senior.
He already had chosen Maryland as his college, but Blake didn't know where he would finish high school. Rather than prolong a legal challenge to restore his eligibility in Florida, and in demand as one of the nation's premier point guard prospects, he took a last-minute scholarship to Oak Hill, the basketball finishing school in rural southwest Virginia.
Blake joined a team that already boasted Ron Slay (Tennessee), Travis Watson (Virginia) and Abdou Diame, now a senior whom Maryland covets.
"Steve was the one player who gave up the most on last year's team," Oak Hill coach Steve Smith said. "It was not the most talented I've ever had, but it was only the third one I've had go unbeaten in 15 years, and I wouldn't bet against them against anyone. That includes our '93 team, which had Jerry Stackhouse, Jeff McInnis and Makhtar Ndiaye.
"Two things stand out about Steve. He's a take-charge guy on the floor, a player who wants the ball in his hands and is going to make good decisions with it. The other is his mental toughness. He will not back down from anyone. People see this scrawny-looking guy, but he's not scared of [North Carolina's] Ed Cota, or any other point guard in the ACC."
Blake and Juan Dixon, the sophomore who will start at shooting guard for Maryland, matched up too often in the past month. Combined, Blake and Dixon weigh less than Ravens offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden, but they tangled like heavyweights during a pickup game two weeks ago.
"Steve Francis gave it his all every game, and Steve Blake is already bringing that to the table," Dixon said. "Somebody got hit with an elbow, and we just got into it."
The two were separated, and play resumed.
"We stopped and started playing right away again," said Blake, who had a black eye from an earlier Dixon elbow. "We're fine. Outsiders might dwell on stuff like that, but we don't. Juan and I are alike in that we go after it so hard. Two people like that are going to crash heads sometimes."
Blake was an infant in 1980, the last time Williams recalled handing the point guard position to a true freshman. He'll replace a three-year starter in Terrell Stokes, and though Francis, Laron Profit and Obinna Ekezie are also gone, the Maryland camp sees itself challenging North Carolina and Duke for the ACC title.
It will help if that wafer-thin backcourt holds up and Blake prospers as expected.
"Some people keep telling me how much pressure is going to be on me, but I don't feel any," Blake said. "I'm more excited than anything. I'm happy to have the chance I've got here. I don't see that as pressure at all."
Steve Blake file
Height: 6 feet 3
Hometown: Miami Lakes, Fla.
Career 1996-97: His Miami Killian team went 33-3 and was a state semifinalist.
1997-98: His Miami Senior team went 36-1 and was ranked No. 4 by USA Today.
1998-99: His Oak Hill (Va.) team went 31-0 and was named national champion by USA Today.
1999-2000: Projected starter at point guard for Maryland.
SOURCE: University of Maryland Sports Information
Pub Date: 10/14/99