Bench mark for success

COLLEGE PARK — COLLEGE PARK - The Maryland Terrapins do not have a sixth man, a designated weapon coming off the bench to add a spark to the team.

The Terps are blessed with five of them.


In 23 years of coaching at four different schools, Maryland's Gary Williams cannot recall having this many capable bodies lying in wait behind his starting lineup.

As the 11th-ranked Terps begin their chase of a first-ever berth in the Final Four tomorrow with a first-round NCAA tournament matchup against George Mason in Boise, Idaho, Maryland clearly has enough legs to confront the grind it is anticipating.


Thirty-one games into its season, Maryland (21-10) has plenty of bounce in its step.

"This is a fresh basketball team for this time of the year," Williams said. "We need the starters to play well now, but the bench gives us a great weapon. There is a difference between having a sixth man and having a bench. We don't just put people out there on the floor. Our guys on the bench can play."

The Terps entered the season with a top five ranking, primarily because every starter returned from a 25-10 squad that started no seniors. Another reason for the hype was Maryland's perceived depth.

Not only have the backups lived up to expectations, they have put a new face on a Maryland team that, under Williams, typically has gone no more than eight players deep and has tired noticeably by March.

These Terps, who have won six of their past seven games, appear to be peaking at postseason time. They also are armed with a 10-man attack, giving them a talent surplus that can be priceless during a three-weekend, single-elimination tournament.

There is no better counterbalance to a starter's slump or foul trouble than a man on the pine with game. Or, in this case, a quintet.

Think back to the times when the five-man bench rotation - guard Drew Nicholas, forward/guard Danny Miller, forwards Tahj Holden and Chris Wilcox and center Mike Mardesich - has taken over.

Remember when the Terps began to reverse their 1-3 start by winning the BB&T; Classic in early December? The bench deserved the game ball that weekend. Remember when Maryland fell behind Duke early in the team's first meeting at Cole Field House? It was the play of the bench that helped the Terps take control, before losing in overtime. In last weekend's 84-82 ACC tournament semifinal loss to Duke at the Georgia Dome, the bench was superb, combining for 31 points, 10 rebounds and six assists.


It all starts in practice, where the backups have been known to rule the day against the front-line performers.

"There's a lot of pride when we come into practice and play the first team," said Holden, the 6-foot-10 forward who is equal parts defensive enforcer and fine shooter. Holden, who missed nine games with a fractured left foot before returning two months ago, averages four points and 2.1 rebounds over 11.5 minutes a game. He is shooting 48.4 percent.

"We're all good players, and we're all deserving of the playing time we get," Holden added. "We earn our time. [Williams] doesn't just put us out there to give people a rest."

Coming into the season, Williams was determined not to overwork his starters. He has kept to his strategy. Consider that on only one occasion have all five starters played 30 minutes apiece. The backcourt of Steve Blake (28.2 minutes) and Juan Dixon (29.7) and senior forward Terence Morris (28.1) have played the most. Each averaged at least 32 minutes a year ago.

The roles of the bench have been defined and refined. At 7 feet, 250 pounds, Mardesich (3.7 ppg, 2.5 rpg) is the one true backup to center Lonny Baxter. Mardesich gives Maryland a defensive presence and senior leadership, which were invaluable as the Terps reversed a 1-5 slide in mid-February.

Miller and Nicholas have given the Terps interchangeable parts, and each has shaken off a late-season slump. Nicholas (6.8 ppg, 43.6 percent from three-point range), Blake's backup at point guard, is a competent ballhandler, and he remains one of the team's top outside shooting threats.


The 6-foot-8 Miller (4.8 ppg, 2.7 rpg) is probably the team's second-best ballhandler, in addition to being equally effective at small forward or shooting guard, depending on which type of lineup Williams prefers to employ. Miller, benched four games into the season for Byron Mouton, has turned that small forward spot into a two-headed monster by averaging 18.5 minutes, tops among the reserves.

Then there is Wilcox (3.7 ppg, 2.4 rpg), the high-flying, 6-10 freshman who could be a wild card going into the postseason. Williams kept him under wraps for much of January and early February, before turning Wilcox loose somewhat. In 22 minutes of action at the ACC tournament, Wilcox was dazzling at times, scoring eight points and grabbing five rebouunds.

"If you look at any talented team in the country, there are days when the so-called second team beats the first team in practice. We do," Miller said. "We have a lot of talent. Our bench is capable of doing a lot of things."

Second team

The Maryland Terrapins can bring five quality players off the bench as they try to reach their first Final Four.

Player........... G ...........Min............. Pts........ Reb. ...........Ast.


Holden......... 22......... 11.5............. 4.0......... 2.1.............. 0.6

Mardesich... 31 ........ 10.6............ 3.7..........2.5.............. 0.5

Miller .............31......... 18.5 ............ 4.8......... 2.7 ............. 2.1

Nicholas...... 31..........17.0............. 6.8......... 1.6.............. 2.5

Wilcox.......... 29........... 9.1 .............3.7......... 2.4.............. 0.5

Next for Terps


Opponent: George Mason in NCAA tournament West Regional first round

Seeds, records: No. 3 Maryland 21-10; No. 14 George Mason 18-11.

Day, time: Tomorrow, approx. 3:02 p.m.

Site: BSU Pavilion, Boise, Idaho

TV: Chs. 13, 9

Line: Maryland by 16 1/2