COLLEGE PARK -- Last week, coach Gary Williams made a brief, blunt reference to the health of the Maryland men's basketball team.
"It's the key to this year," Williams said.
Maryland is just on the outside of the preseason Top 25 that was unveiled by the Associated Press yesterday; the Terps lead the other teams receiving votes. They have a national Player of the Year candidate in junior forward Terence Morris, three sophomores ready to take on larger roles and three freshmen who will contribute immediately.
They also have just nine scholarship players, and Maryland is not deep enough to overcome an injury like it did last year. Although Maryland won six straight games after then-senior Obinna Ekezie ruptured an Achilles' tendon, his absence was a factor in both the Terps' postseason losses -- against North Carolina in the Atlantic Coast Conference semifinals and St. John's in the third round of the NCAA tournament.
Williams will continue to work on contingency plans and his rotation at 8 tonight at Cole Field House, where Maryland will conclude a two-game exhibition schedule against the California East All-Stars.
The Terps are thin in the backcourt, and 6-foot walk-on Matt Hahn played before junior forward LaRon Cephas in last week's exhibition rout of the Down-Under Bandits.
As expected, freshman Steve Blake has nailed down the starting point guard position. Juan Dixon, the shooting guard, is backing him up, but the 152-pound sophomore was visibly fatigued toward the end of a 31-minute stint last week.
Freshman Drew Nicholas said yesterday that he has spent some time running the point since Wednesday, when he made six straight three-pointers in the first exhibition. Starting wing forward Danny Miller could also start the offense, and Williams even mentioned the possibility of Morris bringing the ball upcourt.
"You can go a lot of different ways," Williams said. "I keep reading about North Carolina pressing more, and if it's man, there's nothing wrong with Terence bringing the ball up against Kris Lang. The way we run our offense, it's only the first pass you have to make to get us into our offense."
Maryland didn't have to work overly hard to get 98 points in its first exhibition. Tonight's opponent has talents like Robbie Reid (Michigan) and Mack Tuck (Colorado).
NOTES: The Terps open Nov. 17 at Cole against San Francisco in the 16-team Preseason National Invitation Tournament The fall letter of intent signing period opens tomorrow, and Matt Slaninka, a 7-3 project from De Matha, is the only prospect who has orally committed to Maryland. The Terps remain in the running for highly regarded forwards Chris Wilcox and Abdou Diame. Tonight's exhibition will be broadcast on WBAL (1090 AM). Tickets are available.