COLLEGE PARK -- Want to provide a freshman point guard and three new starters with a crash course in the pressures of college basketball?
Open with a must-win situation.
Maryland starts anew tonight at 8 at Cole Field House against San Francisco. The Terps expect to collect the 400th win of Gary Williams' coaching career and extend the nation's longest nonconference home winning streak to 65 games, but the milestones aren't as meaningful as survival in the Preseason National Invitation Tournament.
Win tonight -- and at home Friday against Tulane or Fordham in the second round -- and the Terps will come out of the Thanksgiving break off a trip to Madison Square Garden for the Preseason NIT's final four and with five games under their belts. An unexpected setback this week would literally mean lost opportunities for a team in need of experience.
This is not the youngest starting five that Williams has had in his 21 seasons as a college head coach. You only have to go back to 1993-94, when he started two freshmen and three sophomores, and newcomers Joe Smith and Keith Booth sparked a revival that has Maryland in position to earn its seventh straight bid to the NCAA tournament.
Participation in March Madness is not the given it was last season, when one-year wonder Steve Francis and three senior starters had the Terps open No. 6 in the Associated Press Top 25, climb as high as No. 2 and win a school-record 28 games.
Maryland starts this season unranked, just as it did two years ago, when it also reached the Sweet 16. The Terps are not without a national face, as 6-foot-9 forward Terence Morris is a preseason All-American, but the versatile junior out of Thomas Johnson High in Frederick is surrounded by four first-year starters.
"I don't want the team to feel that Terence has to play great for us to win," Williams said.
Sophomore center Lonny Baxter is not exactly a rookie starter, as he replaced Obinna Ekezie in the lineup last February, before the latter's career was ended by a ruptured tendon. Baxter has developed his body and his offensive game, but foul trouble remains his Achilles' heel.
In Maryland's three NCAA tournament games last March and two exhibitions earlier this month, Baxter averaged less than 15 minutes of playing time.
When Baxter adapts to what officials will let him get away with, Williams will be able to experiment with a bigger lineup and use Morris at the small forward position. Until then, there could be a sizable load on Steve Blake, Juan Dixon and Danny Miller, a hard-nosed trio on the perimeter.
Blake, who will be the first true freshman to start for Williams at the point in nearly two decades, won big at Miami (Fla.) Senior High and Oak Hill (Va.) Academy.
Dixon is a redshirt sophomore from Calvert Hall who will start at shooting guard and back up Blake at the point. Miller is a 6-8 sophomore wing from New Jersey who also has expanded his role.
"Last year, Danny Miller and myself only averaged 15 minutes," Dixon said. "With Blake being a freshman, and us playing all those minutes, it's tough on all of us. We just have to keep on grinding, keep on working on both ends."
Williams hired Kurtis Shultz, one of his former players, as strength coach in the off-season, as every player in the eight-man rotation adjusts to increased minutes. Junior Mike Mardesich backs up Baxter, and freshmen Drew Nicholas and Tahj Holden are the other reserves.
There are only nine scholarship players available, and Maryland can't play at the pace it did last season, when it was seventh in the nation in scoring. If Williams doesn't press as much, that decision will be influenced by maturity as much as depth. It takes time to learn the Terps' traps, and their best offensive play is no longer a double-team on some hapless guard.
"This is a very good passing team," Williams said. "We probably move the ball better than we did last year. We might not be as good in the open court, but I think we'll be a better half-court team as time goes on, because we'll run the offense better."
With Morris and Baxter as the targets, Williams has emphasized working the offense from the inside out.
Junior forward James Lee will be the first to mark Morris. San Francisco finished seventh in the West Coast Conference with a 12-18 record last season, but coach Phil Mathews returned four starters, including the backcourt of Ali Thomas and LyRyan Russell. Center Kenyon Jones is a 6-10 transfer from California.
It has already been a hectic week for Williams, who flew to Ohio on Sunday night to be with his daughter Kristin for the birth of his first grandchild. David Geoffrey Scott was born at 8: 10 a.m. Monday.
"They [his players] said that they hope this will mellow me," Williams said. "You know what? The fact that they said that, I'm going to have to get tougher, to show them that I'm not mellowing at all."
NOTES: As of last night, fewer than 300 tickets remained. To check on availability, call 800-462-8377. This is the Terps' first appearance in the Preseason NIT, which was won by North Carolina last season. Maryland is 10-0 in home openers under Williams. The Dons' roster lists six players 6-9 or taller, but they are without injured guard Chris Barideaux. It's the Terps' first game against San Francisco since Dec. 21, 1973.
Opponent: San Francisco
Site: Cole Field House, College Park
TV/Radio: Chs. 69 (Harford), 54 (Howard) and 25 (Baltimore County)/WBAL (1090 AM), WMAL (630 AM)