COLLEGE PARK - The way Drew Nicholas saw it, the preseason reports of the Maryland Terrapins' imminent decline were greatly exaggerated.
Maryland was missing four starters from a 32-4 squad that had won the school's first NCAA title. Gone was the best inside-outside duo in the game in Lonny Baxter and Juan Dixon, the most prolific scorer ever at Maryland. Conventional thinking said the Terps, who also had lost power forward Chris Wilcox early to the NBA and versatile small forward Byron Mouton, would not be able to replace such heart and soul.
Nicholas has always considered this season's glass more than half full. And the shooting guard still scowls when asked about Maryland's preseason ranking in certain publications.
"Twenty-eight. That's a big number. I don't even like to speak about it," said Nicholas, referring to a Sports Illustrated poll.
"Some people looked at us and said, 'Yeah, you have seniors with experience, but it doesn't necessarily mean you have enough talent.' We really like our talent and our experience going into the second half of the ACC. We're coming together as a team. We're not feeling ourselves out anymore."
Beginning their second trip through the Atlantic Coast Conference schedule at Georgia Tech today, the No. 8 Terps (14-5, 6-2) are sitting atop the league standings in a first-place tie with Wake Forest.
With a five-man freshman class that complements a rare five-senior starting lineup, the Terps are playing the type of nasty defense that has come to personify Gary Williams' teams in College Park. They share the ball smartly with the most experienced backcourt in the league, led by a four-year starter at point guard in Steve Blake. They continue to refine roles and develop the type of depth that could be pivotal in the postseason.
Is Maryland, the reigning ACC regular-season champion, as imposing as last year's edition? Of course not.
Nicholas, one of the league's more effective scorers and defenders, is no Dixon. Senior center Ryan Randle shows flashes of great post play, but he lacks the power and consistency of Baxter. Calvin McCall loves doing dirty work, but he can't score the way Mouton could. And no one on the roster, with the occasional exception of high-flying reserve forward Jamar Smith, can intimidate an opponent in Wilcox's fashion.
But in this season's younger, more evenly matched ACC - which lost 17 of its top 20 scorers from a year ago - is Maryland a legitimate force still gathering steam? Williams says so.
"I'm realistic about this team. I've never put limits on this team. I just know we'll continue to get better if we keep working hard," Williams said. "We've got to keep the learning curve going. Our concentration level in practice has to be high now."
In other words, the Terps must not lose sight of the fact that they have little margin for error. Their half-court offense lacks fluidity at times. Young players like freshman forward Travis Garrison have regressed at times. Their ticket is an active, pressure defense that draws big news when it allows opponents to shoot 40 percent.
The Terps learned a hard lesson Thursday, when their defense went to sleep at crunch time and allowed Virginia's three-point shooters to get wide-open and beat Maryland at home, 86-78. The Terps blew a 12-point second-half lead.
But don't forget how far this team has come from a 4-3 start - that 15-point whipping of then-No. 1 Duke three weeks ago, for example - or how Williams has changed his approach.
A year ago, the Terps were carried by Dixon and Baxter and a supporting cast. Williams essentially managed exceptional talent and channeled the focus of a hungry, veteran team that already had tasted a Final Four.
A year later, Maryland is an intriguing blend of old and new players with something to prove, something to uphold. On any given night, Williams isn't sure which player combinations will work or who will rule a given stretch of play.
It could be the three-guard lineup with freshman John Gilchrist running the point that presents matchup headaches. Freshmen like Garrison or small forward Nik Caner-Medley could supply the spark. Or freshman guard Chris McCray, who has shown the ability to negate a glaring mistake with a great play. Randle might rule the boards one night, Smith on another.
"It's a different scenario. We had eight guys last year and we pretty much knew how things were going to work. This year, nobody was sure how good we'd be. And with freshmen, it's a complete mystery at the beginning," said Williams, who began expanding his rotation to 10 players during two weeks of practice in late December.
"I haven't had to deal with freshmen like this the last few years. But I'm not afraid to use players. That's all I go by," he added. "As a coach, it's a terrible feeling to look down the bench and think, 'Oh, man, if I put that guy in, he might lose the game for us in a two-minute period.' Now I look down the bench and see five guys I can use."
Senior power forward Tahj Holden, who regained a starting job after losing it for five games earlier, sees the Terps building an identity that could land them another ACC crown and serve them well in the NCAAs.
Holden, never a great rebounder at 6 feet 10, fits into Maryland's scheme in other ways. He remains a dangerous shooter, the team's best passer and defender in the post, and he leads the ACC in blocked shots. He, Blake, Nicholas and Randle are tournament-tested.
"When we had Juan and Lonny, you knew what those guys were going to do. ... This year, we're a little different. We just go out and find ways to win," Holden said. "We have so many guys who do completely different things well, and we're not sure what's going to happen. It's exciting to have so much unpredictability."
Matchup:No. 8 Maryland (14-5) vs. Georgia Tech (11-8)
Site:Alexander Memorial Coliseum, Atlanta
TV/Radio:Chs. 13, 9/WBAL (1090 AM)
Line:Maryland by 2 1/2