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For UM big men, a tall order

THE BALTIMORE SUN

COLLEGE PARK - The first thing Hassan Fofana had to do was lose some weight, to help him keep up with the rapid pace of the game. The first thing Will Bowers had to do was hit the weights, to give him added strength he would need to survive the nasty contact he would face.

The crash courses for Maryland's freshman centers are in full swing. There is no shortage of exercises to perform under the tutelage of coach Gary Williams and assistants Dave Dickerson and Jimmy Patsos.

Bowers, a 7-foot-1, 245-pound prospect out of Archbishop Spalding, shook his head at all that is expected of the big men in Maryland's flex offense, an attack based on free-flowing motion, timed cuts and constant reading of the opposing defense's moves. The scheme calls for each of its players to rotate to positions all over the floor as plays unfold, and it is predicated on getting the ball inside first.

Bowers and Fofana have a lot to master: Run the floor fast enough to get into good position on the block, catch the ball, decide quickly whether to try a power move with back to the basket, use a drop step to create space for a hook or a jump shot, turn and face the hoop for a jumper if the defense provides enough space. Or pass to an open shooter on the perimeter or to a teammate cutting to the basket, especially after drawing a double team of defenders.

Williams also demands that his big men develop solid ball-handling skills, since they often receive passes after moving to the perimeter. There, they can choose between swinging the ball along the perimeter, finding an open cutter or a teammate in a post-up position, dribbling into the defense to break it down or taking an open shot.

Oh, and on defense, get behind your man on the block, keep your feet moving as the ball moves around the court in front of you to maintain good position, and deny the ball inside while not reaching and over-playing, which will allow an easier angle for receiving the ball and scoring. And, do not abandon your spot too soon to stop the ball-handler who has driven into the lane, since that will leave your man too open to catch a pass and score easily down low.

Got all that, Will and Hassan?

"There's so much stuff to think about. In high school, we ran a lot of plays, but it's not even close to what we're running here," Bowers said. "You have to think about where you're supposed to be, and you have to read plays before they happen. Then you have to make quick decisions, the right decisions. In time, it's something I'll be able to master."

"It's definitely not easy, and this is the ACC. They play rough here. They beat on you," said Fofana, a 6-10, 275-pound native of Guinea, who has lost 15 pounds since last fall and added noticeable tone to his body during only his fourth organized season of basketball.

"You need to have a lot of energy left for the end of the game. You need to be able to get into the right position, and you need to be tough to play inside. A lot of big names have come out of here, so you have to work harder to keep that going. This school is big. They have history."

Over the past decade, during which the Terps have won their only national championship while going to 10 consecutive NCAA tournaments, the big men have had a huge stake in Maryland's fortunes.

Smith at front of line

The list begins with Joe Smith, the dazzling talent who became the No. 1 NBA draft pick in 1995 after leading the Terps to the Sweet 16 in his only two years at Maryland and starting the current NCAA tournament streak. Smith remains the standard by which the Terps' post players have been measured since his departure in '95.

From Smith, the line includes a former project named Obinna Ekezie, who came out of recruiting obscurity and is still getting paid in the NBA by the Atlanta Hawks. It extends to 7-foot Mike Mardesich, a solid former backup who is playing professionally in Germany, and to 6-10 Tahj Holden, who countered his lack of interior scoring ability with unusually good outside shooting and passing skills. Holden is playing in Turkey.

And of course, there is 6-7 Lonny Baxter, who brought his rugged, low-post game from the streets of Southeast Washington and teamed with guard Juan Dixon to carry the Terps to glory in 2002. Baxter, a two-time regional Most Valuable Player in NCAA tournament play, is playing for the Toronto Raptors in his second NBA season.

With the exception of Smith, who joined the Terps with remarkable skills and quickness and was the national Player of the Year as a sophomore, Maryland's low-post players have been more protracted works in progress. And they all brought something different to the table, which the Maryland offense is designed to accommodate.

"The big guys are going to be on the inside, but if the offense is run right, they're going to be on the perimeter, also," said Dickerson, who, along with Patsos, works mainly with the post players.

"If we can get our big guys to feel comfortable with the ball in their hands away from the basket, teaching them how to play in the post becomes easier. Coach Williams demands that everyone has post skills and perimeter skills. Everyone who plays for us needs to be able to catch the ball and pass the ball, and be decisive about what to do when they have the ball."

Moving it around

Watch the Terps' offense run correctly and witness a controlled freedom at work as players become interchangeable parts. The center and power forward often look like the same position. Guards end up in post-up spots. Big men wind up wide-open outside, and have permission to shoot in that situation.

For example, 6-9 senior center Jamar Smith is asked to play with his back to the basket, but Smith also is allowed to use his quickness to create shots from up top or on the baseline.

Smith is more comfortable facing the basket and can't go through defenders the way Baxter could. Conversely, Baxter rarely would settle for open jumpers beyond the 12-foot range. His bread and butter was the power move, followed by a jump hook or layup, and repeated trips to the foul line.

"That's the beauty of how we run our offense. We want Jamar to be a back-to-the-basket player, but if he catches the ball away from the basket, we expect him to make open jumpers and or put the ball on the floor and go by people," Dickerson said. "We're not working to make guys become great guards or forwards as much as we're working to make them good players in our system."

Said Baxter: "I was always effective in the paint, even in high school. I tried to beat people up with my body. I was just a bully."

"You try to make [big men] as well-rounded as possible. Shoot if you're open. But no matter how much a big guy wants to shoot jumpers, you can't lose your ability to score inside," Williams said. "Lonny did not make the NBA because of his jump shot. The league is looking for guys who can power the ball to the basket. All of the good NBA teams have someone they can go to who can score inside."

Ekezie, who had played only two years of organized basketball before college and was a Terp from 1996 to 1999, had good footwork and raw skills to go with his 300-pound body when he first reported to College Park.

After dropping about 30 pounds as a freshman, the nuances of the game - gaining rebounding position in the lane, feeling his defender behind him and reacting accordingly, passing smartly out of double teams - became second nature.

"I'm a very good post passer because of Gary Williams. I still don't see a lot of good post-feeding or passing in the NBA," said Ekezie, who helped groom Baxter. "The biggest thing for me was to get into good condition to play basketball. If you don't run the floor and get the ball in the right position, the play is over."

"[Big men] had better be able to catch the ball and run as fast as you can to get down the floor," Patsos added. "The game waited for them in high school. Not here. You have to catch up to us."

Even while assistant coaches are doing individual work with players in September and October - they are allotted two hours per week, per player - the staff is getting them in tune with the up-tempo version of the old-school flex, which frowns on too much one-on-one, isolation play.

"It's not like you have three dribbles to make a move [down low]. Defenses don't let you do that in college," said Mardesich, who preferred to face the basket, but became more of a true, low-post player in his later years. "It's a very methodical offense. Instead of trying to create [a shot], you let the offense create for you."

The big men are drilled in numerous areas, starting in the early fall. They receive tons of hard bounce passes in the paint, to get used to securing the ball with two hands before making their next move. They must sprint to different parts of the floor at a simulated game speed to achieve proper positioning.

There is not much standing around, except when Dickerson or Patsos is explaining the proper move to make and the mechanics behind it - how to pin a defender on the baseline with a drop step, how to turn on him, face the rim and make a move if spacing allows, how to play good position defense.

"Playing post defense and playing it by the rules of college basketball is probably the hardest thing to do for any incoming freshman," Dickerson said. "The game is so physical, so quick."

"When practice starts [in mid-October], it's about how you play with nine other guys on the floor," Williams said. "That's hard for a [young] inside player, because you're in a very small area. You're a big guy, there's a lot more contact than you're used to in high school, and a lot of times, you're not the strongest guy out there."

Getting the hang of it

Fofana and Bowers slowly are getting there. Bowers, who is averaging 5.7 minutes per game, already is a decent face-up shooter and passer, although he still gets pushed around in the paint.

Fofana, averaging 6.9 minutes, has started to grasp the offense in recent weeks, has passed Bowers in Maryland's rotation, and is the team's first big man off the bench. Fofana has much work to do on his shooting, but is becoming a defensive presence as a rebounder and a shot-blocker and is hard to dislodge from his position. He made his first real impact on Wednesday with a career-high 10 rebounds, five points and one blocked shot in the Terps' 71-67 victory at Virginia.

"I'm a realistic person. I'm one of the weaker players on the team. I know I'm a project, but I tend to think I'm not as much of a project as a lot of people think," Bowers said. "I don't think it will take two or three years for me to become a consistent ACC player."

Said Fofana: "You have to be tough to play inside, and I love it. I know I have a long way to go. A lot of other big guys have made it playing here. I'm pretty sure I'm going to make it, too. My time will come."

Terps today

Matchup: Florida State (16-6, 4-4 ACC) vs. Maryland (12-7, 3-5)

Site: Comcast Center, College Park

Time: 1 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)

Coming up big at Maryland

Since Maryland went to the first of 10 consecutive NCAA tournaments in 1994, the Terps have produced a procession of post players who have made notable contributions in the paint. Here are a few of the strong post players who have come and gone in the past decade.

Name Years with UM Where they are now

Joe Smith 1993-1995 Milwaukee Bucks, fifth team in nine NBA seasons

Keith Booth 1993-1997 Assistant coach at Dunbar High; formerly with Chicago Bulls

Obinna Ekezie 1996-1999 Atlanta Hawks, fifth team in five NBA seasons

Mike Mardesich 1997-2001 Playing professionally in Germany

Lonny Baxter 1998-2002 Toronto Raptors, second team in two NBA seasons

Chris Wilcox 2000-2002 Los Angeles Clippers, second season

Tahj Holden 1999-2003 Playing professionally in Turkey

Ryan Randle 2001-2003 Playing professionally in Poland

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