COLLEGE PARK - Maryland Terrapins coach Gary Williams could tell on the first day of practice last week that his starting senior center was in the right frame of mind. So could some of Maryland's other players.
And Ryan Randle, the shy, soft-spoken kid from Duncanville, Texas, with the droopy eyes that led his teammates to nickname him "Sleepy" a year ago, felt ready to produce in a big way for the Terps.
One of the main reasons Maryland has yet to relinquish the grip on its title as defending national champion and is headed back to the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16 round for the fifth time in the past six years is the reawakening of Sleepy.
Coming into the NCAAs, Randle needed a turnaround. In his previous three games, he had barely been a scoring or rebounding threat. His mini-slump struck rock bottom in the Terps' 84-72 loss to North Carolina in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament quarterfinals, when Randle had more fouls (four) than combined points and rebounds (three) in 13 nightmarish minutes.
The other Randle, the steady, 6-foot-9, 245-pound pivot man who had been a strong backup to Lonny Baxter last year and had gotten off to a strong start before tapering off this season, emerged again on the NCAA tournament's opening weekend.
In Friday night's 75-73 victory over UNC-Wilmington, decided on a last-second shot by guard Drew Nicholas, Randle produced his first double double in nearly five weeks. In Sunday's 77-64 victory over Xavier, Randle sparked an excellent night by the Terps' post players and finished with 17 points and six rebounds.
"I think Ryan took it upon himself and said he was not going to let anything get in his way," sophomore backup guard Andre Collins said. "You can tell when Ryan is going to have a good game. He was happy and excited and talking a lot during the week. Before the ACC tournament, he was real quiet."
"If anything was said [to Randle by teammates], it was try to put everything aside when you step on the court," added Nicholas.
Just after the Terps discovered they were the South Regional's sixth seed, Randle alluded to an off-the-field problem that had been troubling him. Following Randle's 15-point, 16-rebound effort against UNC-Wilmington, Williams said it boiled down to a spat between Randle and his girlfriend. Randle shrugged, smiled and brushed off personal questions.
"I just put everything behind me last week, starting in practice. I just decided to put it all out there on the court and leave it out there," said Randle, who is averaging 13.0 points and a team-high 7.3 rebounds. "This is my last go-round, and I want to go out on top."
Maryland probably will not survive much longer if Randle is not at or approaching the top of his game. In the Terps' offensive design, the ball is supposed to get into his hands early and often.
A second-year player at Maryland out of Allegany College in Cumberland, Randle learned a lot as a Terps rookie. No longer a star performer, he came off the bench and averaged 9.6 minutes, squeezing an effective 3.8 points and 3.1 rebounds out of his limited playing time. He was the final piece in Maryland's four-man post rotation that helped carry the Terps to their first NCAA title.
Randle prepared for his starting role by dropping about 15 pounds and adding muscle last summer.
"That was all about total dedication," Randle said.
He has had up-and-down periods this year. He registered five double doubles over a 12-game, early-season span that included nights against Indiana, Florida and Duke. He also went 13 games with only one double double before Friday's breakout effort.
Although he averages only 3.1 free-throw attempts a game, Randle has made 22 of his past 27 and has become a respectable, 60.2 percent foul shooter. Although he has lacked power by settling for too many jump hooks and fadeaway shots, Randle has improved his scoring average by 9.2 points this year.
"I wish I had Ryan for four years. I'd like coaching him as a [real Maryland] senior. This is only his second year here. It's like he's a sophomore," Williams said. "He had to learn kind of on the run last year, without playing a considerable amount of minutes. Then, all of the pressure was on him.
"Ryan went from being a guy who, if he didn't play well, we probably could still win the game, to a guy who, if he didn't play well, we probably had a good chance to lose. He's had periods where he didn't put up the numbers, but he keeps coming back."
Randle, who learned at Baxter's hand during some rough practices last year ("Going against Lonny is like going against a machine, in terms of effort," Williams said), knows something about winning. After leading Duncanville High to a 5A state title as a senior, he played in back-to-back JuCo championship games at Allegany, including the national title game as a sophomore.
Randle sees his ability to bang around and rebound effectively against a deep, physical Michigan State front line as a key Friday night at the Alamodome.
"The ball has to go through us in the post to be successful, but I'm just worried about controlling the boards and being physical," Randle said. "I'm glad I'm playing better, but I'm not satisfied."
Music to the ears of teammates such as senior guard Calvin McCall.
"[Randle] is more focused now, totally concentrating on basketball, and you can see he's a real good player when that happens," McCall said. "He woke up."
Next for Terps
Matchup:No. 6 seed Maryland (21-9) vs. No. 7 seed Michigan State (21-12) in NCAA South Regional semifinals
Site:Alamodome, San Antonio
When:Friday, 9:57 p.m.
TV/Radio:Chs. 13, 9/WBAL (1090 AM)
Line:Maryland by 3 1/2