COLLEGE PARK - There are still plenty of questions about the University of Maryland men's basketball team, but the Terps insist they have most of the answers.
The 2004-05 Terrapins, who will celebrate the beginning of the college basketball season with Midnight Madness festivities tonight at the Comcast Center, are a year older, a year wiser and far more confident than last year's version.
That, of course, was the team that in one dizzying weekend in Greensboro, N.C., played its way off of the NCAA tournament bubble and into the history books as the school's first Atlantic Coast Conference tournament champion in 20 years.
Every member of that 20-12 squad - the youngest in college basketball - returns, except for center and leading rebounder Jamar Smith, so expectations are high.
But to a man, the Terps acknowledged that those expectations mean nothing unless the team truly rids itself of the frustrating patterns of inconsistency that dominated last season.
"That's what we have to look at," said coach Gary Williams, who has 315 wins entering his 16th year at his alma mater. "Will that weekend in Greensboro propel us into the season? We played at a very good level down there and that's where I'd like to be in December this year, instead of in March. There are no guarantees. We're a year older, but we want to be better."
The Terps, who took a 12-day, five-game trip to Italy this offseason aimed at building both camaraderie and maturity, will have to be. In the first year of the expanded ACC, as many as five league teams could be ranked in the top 10 in the country when the season begins.
By Christmas, Maryland, which will likely fall somewhere between 12th and 18th in preseason polls, will have tested its mettle against Memphis and Wisconsin, and there's also a chance the Terps will have met Michigan State at the BB&T; Classic.
"Our goal is to win a national championship, and in order to do that, we have to be consistent," said junior forward Nik Caner-Medley. "We can't be a team that just gets hot for a couple of weeks. We're a very deep team. I can't really think of anything we don't have. We have the makeup of a great team."
And that makeup, like the Terps' offense, starts with junior John Gilchrist, who distinguished himself as the ACC tournament Most Valuable Player in a league loaded with star point guards.
"Once you do things two times, you learn how to do things the right way," said Gilchrist, who spent the summer watching tape on his teammates to gain a further understanding of their games. "I feel like my knowledge is at a good enough level to successfully lead a championship team."
But aside from Gilchrist, the Terps are a team loaded with players who feel they have something to prove, and questions abound.
Are true centers Will Bowers and Hassan Fofana far enough along to play major minutes? Has Mike Jones, probably the Terps' best shooter, improved enough defensively to wrestle time from Chris McCray at the 2-guard position? How will Williams use guard D.J. Strawberry, who energized the Terps last season with his hustle?
The answers to those questions probably won't be revealed until Nov. 19, the night of the Terps' season opener. The lineup that will take the floor against Jackson State is anybody's guess, and Williams wasn't giving any hints earlier this week.
"What starters?" was his response when asked to evaluate his lineup.
Guards Gilchrist and McCray and forwards Caner-Medley (6 feet 8) and Travis Garrison (6-9) are the returnees that spent the bulk of last season in the starting lineup.
Ekene Ibekwe, the 6-9 forward who started seven games last season and has since added 10 pounds to get up to 220, may be the lead candidate to replace the departed Smith's inside scoring and rebounding.
"If you go 6-9, 6-9, 6-8 [in the frontcourt] you're as big as any team we'll probably play against except maybe Georgia Tech with [7-1 Luke] Schenscher," said Williams. "I think what you have to do is get your best five players on the court, or your best eight in a rotation. It is going to be very tough this year for me."
No matter how it shakes out, the Terps insist they have all the pieces in place.
"I think the sky is the limit," said Garrison. "We have a lot of very good players, we're more experienced, more mature and we know what we have to do to win games."
What: Maryland men's basketball program celebrates start of practice.
Where: Comcast Center, College Park
When: Doors open at 9 tonight
Tickets: None remain.
TV: Comcast SportsNet, beginning at 11:30 p.m.
Midnight madness highlights
10:40 p.m.: Men's basketball alumni game
11:16 p.m.: Three-point shooting contest
11:24 p.m.: Coach Gary Williams look-alike contest
11:45 p.m.: Women's team introductions; coach Brenda Frese comments
Midnight: Men's team introductions; coach Gary Williams comments
12:10 a.m.: Men's scrimmage
12:20 a.m.: Women's scrimmage
12:25 a.m.: Men's scrimmage continues