COLLEGE PARK - After the Maryland Terrapins won their first NCAA men's basketball championship last spring, coach Gary Williams knew he was about to lose four starters, and the position change that made him squirm the most might surprise you.
With star shooting guard Juan Dixon, star center Lonny Baxter and power forward Chris Wilcox embarking on NBA careers, at least Williams had experienced juniors in Drew Nicholas, Ryan Randle and Tahj Holden ready to step in as starters. The same could not be said at small forward, where Byron Mouton had departed and left a void.
As No. 2 seed Maryland prepares for the 50th annual Atlantic Coast Conference tournament after its second-place finish in the regular-season league standings, Williams feels at ease with the small forward slot, where senior Calvin McCall and freshman Nik Caner-Medley have fashioned a tag team that has won over their coach.
"When I looked at that position over the summer, I didn't know how it was going to be. That was the big unknown on our team. We were searching," Williams said.
"Cal was one of the guys I wasn't sure about, since he hadn't played that much, and Nik had never played at this level. But I think the combination of Nik and Cal has helped us solidify what would have been a weakness before the season started."
McCall is the 6-foot-3 ex-Maryland quarterback and basketball walk-on who focused exclusively on hoops preparation for the first time last summer. Caner-Medley, 6-8, is the former Maine high school superstar who used to score 40 points with regularity.
Together, they have grown confident in their games and comfortable with the ways they complement each other. Together, they have combined to average 11.0 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.3 steals and 2.1 assists in 34.5 average minutes of playing time.
"Between me and Cal, we both understand the most important thing is to win," Caner-Medley said. "He's done a great job of helping me out in practice and during games. He's been a great leader for me. The only unsettled part of this is who's hot that night? But as long as at least one of us is playing well, nothing is unsettled."
McCall forced his hand during the preseason with hustle and awareness in practice that made Williams take note. Williams liked McCall's hunger and three years of experience in the program enough to name him the starter.
That lasted four games, after which Caner-Medley moved in among the starting five. But after nine games marked by a tendency to disappear after flashes of fine play, the freshman went back to the bench. Eight games later, their roles changed once again, with Caner-Medley becoming the first steady freshman starter at Maryland since senior point guard Steve Blake's opening year.
Now, Caner-Medley starts, and unless McCall is in foul trouble, the senior usually is on the floor in the waning minutes, especially in a close game.
"I just told myself I was going to give [Williams] no choice but to play me," said McCall, who dropped football, earned a basketball scholarship two years ago and was basically a footnote on last year's team by averaging a mere 1.4 points and 4.2 minutes.
"I was smart enough to realize I'd get on the court by going after loose balls and rebounding and playing good defense. I think I've played well enough to be used as an option."
McCall, an excellent leaper with a muscular frame that reminds one of his football background, has drawn comparisons to Mouton from an admiring Williams after numerous games.
His best nights have come when he is keeping rebounds alive on the offensive glass and forcing turnovers in Maryland's pressing defense. His shooting has been a bonus at times. McCall is averaging 5.2 points and 3.6 rebounds on 47.1 percent shooting in his 18.1 minutes of playing time.
His best stretch came in back-to-back victories last month at Florida State and at home against Wake Forest. McCall grabbed seven rebounds and scored six points to help lift the sluggish Terps past the Seminoles, 74-72. Five days later, McCall was a one-man wrecking crew off the bench in a 90-67 rout of the Demon Deacons with nine points, seven rebounds and three steals.
"I don't think there's a better sixth man in the league than Cal," Williams said.
Caner-Medley, who has averaged 5.8 points and 3.7 rebounds in 16.4 minutes of playing time, can create matchup problems with his size. The Terps like to use Caner-Medley at the top of their zone defense, and he has shown the ability to slash to the basket and make three-pointers with equal success. He is shooting 53.9 percent overall.
His career-high 14-point effort in a losing cause at Georgia Tech on Feb. 9 stood out this season. So did the defensive gem he produced while guarding North Carolina State star Julius Hodge in a 75-60 victory on Jan. 30, in which Caner-Medley also had nine points, three rebounds and a career-high five steals.
"You just have to learn to go hard in all aspects of the game, with any chance you get to play. Bring the intangibles, the extra hustle," Caner-Medley said.
"A lot of times, the most important stuff is what doesn't show up in the box score or gets written in articles or gets on TV. But it's the stuff that helps your team win. For me and Cal, that's kind of our combined role this year."
Tournament at a glance
What: 50th annual Atlantic Coast Conference men's basketball tournament.
Site: Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum.
When: Tonight through Sunday.
2002 champion: Duke, which earned its fourth straight title.
2002 favorite: Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons won their first regular-season conference title since 1962 by finishing two games ahead of Maryland and Duke. Wake Forest is the best rebounding team in the nation, has the best player in the league in senior forward Josh Howard, and has won six consecutive games.
Dark horse: Sixth-seeded Virginia. The Cavaliers are far from the best team in the league, but they are the most two-faced. Blessed with great athletes, led by senior center Travis Watson and excellent shooters in guards Todd Billet and Devin Smith, Virginia has beaten Maryland and Wake a combined three times, but has been awful enough to lose seven in a row. If the Cavs get past Duke in the quarterfinals, look out.
Player to watch: Howard has been the class of the conference all season, with his ability to score from any spot on the floor, rebound at both ends, and take over games consistently in the clutch. He could own this tournament, get the Demon Deacons a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament and solidify his standing as an NBA draft lottery pick.
Outlook: If Duke is ever going to relinquish its grip after winning the past four tournaments, this is the year in a conference that looks as wide-open as ever. Although freshman forward Shelden Williams has emerged as a force, the Blue Devils still are vulnerable inside and will struggle if senior Dahntay Jones' shot is off. Wake Forest has been the league's most consistent team, and Maryland has been good enough to whip Duke and Wake Forest in College Park. The Terps, trying to win their third ACC tournament and first since 1984, need more production out of the post, starting with seniors Ryan Randle and Tahj Holden. Randle has struggled badly of late.
Next for Terps
Matchup: No. 14 Maryland (19-8) vs. North Carolina (16-14) in Atlantic Coast Conference tournament quarterfinals
Site: Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum
When: Tomorrow, 7 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)