COLLEGE PARK -- Midway through its Atlantic Coast Conference schedule, a young Maryland basketball team continues to forge its identity.
The Terps are in a great race -- albeit for second place -- and they could force a four-team logjam there with a victory over North Carolina State today at Cole Field House. Terence Morris is still adjusting to life as a marked man, Lonny Baxter has become the ACC's top producer in the low post, and Juan Dixon will find a way to score.
Another obvious observation: Freshman point guard Steve Blake is one resilient teen-ager.
Basketball was open lanes, layups and wins for Blake the past two seasons, when his teams were a combined 67-1. He was a recruiting coup who would keep Maryland in the upper echelon of the ACC. Then the Terps started 0-3 in the conference and Blake had to find sleep after a couple of nights when he looked the part of the indecisive rookie.
Lately Blake's talent for running a team has surfaced as No. 25 Maryland (15-6, 4-4 ACC) has won four of its past five games. A vital element in that surge has been the way Blake has reinvented himself as a defensive stopper, helping transform the Terps from a trapeze act into a group that thrives on the bump and grind.
Was Blake known for his defense at Miami Senior High and Oak Hill (Va.) Academy?
"Not really," Blake said. "People knew I could play good defense, but it's not what stood out."
Blake and all of the Terps needed a few slaps to the head to discover what it would take to win in the ACC.
Go back to the conference opener, at none other than N.C. State. Maryland fell behind 18-4 in the first nine minutes, as the Terps failed to protect the ball and seemed stunned by the Wolfpack's ferocious approach on defense. It was Blake's 14th college game, but his ACC education was just beginning.
"I liked the environment, with the crowd going crazy, but I was wondering, 'What is going on?' with how physical the game was," Blake said. "You see teammates getting pushed around, we're not making plays, and you wonder what the deal is. I was shocked with how physical that game was, what you could get away with."
Maryland lost a 68-66 crusher when Justin Gainey ran Blake into a high screen and hit a short jumper over Baxter that exposed the inexperience of both Terps. Blake kicked himself after a one-point loss at Georgia Tech a week later, when he passed up an opening on the last possession. Since then, however, he has been remarkably consistent.
The Terps boast the best field-goal percentage defense in the ACC (.385), and their turnaround began Jan. 19 against Wake Forest, whose leading scorer, Robert O'Kelley, shot 1-for-9 against Blake's hounding. Virginia's Donald Hand had the same line against Blake on Wednesday.
Blake's assist-to-turnover ratio, meanwhile, confounds the logic that it is harder to sustain an attack in the close-to-the-vest world of the ACC. In conference games, he's averaging an ACC-best 7.6 assists to 3.0 turnovers. In 13 nonconference games, Blake averaged 5.8 assists to 4.7 turnovers.
Blake shrugged at the trend, but coach Gary Williams had a ready explanation.
"I think Steve likes the competition, the big games," Williams said. "I think he focuses a little better. As he gets older the veteran players, every game, they're ready. Steve is a hard worker, but early, in some of the December games, he wasn't as prepared to play like he is every game now."
The 0-3 start in the ACC wasn't the only hole Blake and the Terps had to dig out from this season.
The first weekend in December, they played three games in four days. Blake's defensive assignment hit a crucial three-pointer in an upset loss to George Washington. Two days later, when Winthrop took Maryland into overtime and he was outplayed by Tyson Waterman, he looked in need of a nap.
It was telling that Blake came back four days after that with a season-high 16 points in a huge nonconference win over Kentucky. It's also evident that he didn't overlook conditioning during an ensuing 16-day break. Blake has averaged more than 33 minutes in ACC games, but instead of wearing down, he looks stronger than the kid who arrived last September.
"When I was in high school, I wouldn't lift weights during the season, and come spring, I'd be a lot weaker in the weight room than I was before the season," Blake said. "If there's time, we lift weights two days before every game. That has helped me a lot, kept me strong."
Blake has a size advantage on nearly every point guard in the conference. He's 6 feet 3 and 175 pounds, with a wingspan that requires XXL shirts.
Suggest that Blake's left hand needs work, and you encounter the defiance that has shut down more established ACC counterparts. Besides, his right hand is so strong, teams have no choice but to try to take it away.
With 136 assists, Blake is on pace to shatter the Maryland freshman record of 178 set by John Lucas in 1972-73. Lately he has learned to funnel the offense inside, but before that, he had to discover what it was like to rebound from a loss. It was a new experience.
"When we were 0-3, you'd say 'What's wrong with us? Why aren't we winning games?' You get upset," Blake said. "You're always thinking, 'I could have done this, I could have done that.' You wonder what would have happened if you had just done a little more."
Blake is doing plenty.
NOTES: N.C. State (15-4, 5-3 ACC) last won at Cole in 1989, before Williams became Maryland's coach. The Wolfpack is 0-3 in ACC road games, and this is the first of five road dates it has in the second half of conference play. N.C. State is without backup center Ron Kelley, who underwent minor knee surgery last Sunday. He played 23 minutes in the first meeting. Maryland attempted 11 free throws in that game, its second-lowest total of the season. Dixon's 19.8 average in ACC games shares the conference scoring lead.
Terps today Opponent: North Carolina State (15-4, 5-3 ACC) Site: Cole Field House, College Park Time: 4 p.m. TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM) Tickets: Sold out
Blake for the defense
North Carolina's Ed Cota is the only point guard to exceed his scoring average against the defense of Steve Blake in Maryland's last seven ACC games. Here's how Blake's assignment fared in the first half of the ACC schedule:
Player Team Pts. FGs A TO
Justin Gainey N.C. State 14 6-11 2 2
Jason Williams Duke 6 3-8 5 8
Tony Akins Georgia Tech 8 3-8 2 4
Robert O'Kelley Wake Forest 4 1-9 0 4
Will Solomon Clemson 12 4-14 4 6
Ed Cota North Carolina 11 3-9 8 4
Delvon Arrington Florida State 7 2-6 7 5
Donald Hand Virginia 5 1-9 5 3