UM hits road, seeks answers

THE BALTIMORE SUN

COLLEGE PARK - Over the next four days on two daunting trips down Tobacco Road, much will probably be revealed about the Maryland Terrapins.

Today's opponent, third-ranked North Carolina, the highest-scoring team in the country, could prove if the 101 points the Terps surrendered to George Washington about a month ago was a sign of things to come or an aberration.

On Tuesday, fourth-ranked Wake Forest, with perhaps the nation's top backcourt, will keep Maryland's guards busy, providing an opportunity for other Terps to step up.

But are Ekene Ibekwe and Travis Garrison ready to become consistent inside contributors? Their play over the past two months hasn't completely answered that question.

"We are like a lot of teams," said Terps coach Gary Williams, whose team is 9-2, 1-0 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. "Time will tell how good we are with what's coming up. You can always get better - your half-court offense, your defense. There are games coming up where you have to do everything right for 40 minutes. We're close, we're getting close."

That mantra was repeated by several Terps, who insist that their team is quickly approaching the form that it showed in winning the ACC tournament last year after displaying maddening inconsistency for 2 1/2 months.

In blowout victories over Liberty, George Mason and Mount St. Mary's, through close losses to Wisconsin and George Washington to the surprising domination of Memphis to the dramatic overtime win against Florida State, the Terps have seen enough positive signs to suggest that the peaks and valleys of last season will level out some.

But they know it won't be easy, either. The 22nd-ranked Terps have 16 regular-season games left. Six are against teams currently ranked in the top 10, and four other games feature opponents that have been ranked this season.

"Consistency is the key to anything. We have to be consistent," said junior point guard John Gilchrist, the Terps' leader in points, assists and steals. "We have to rebound well every night, we have to play good defense every night, we have to make our free throws. Offensively, there are going to be up and down nights, but you always have to do the small things."

At line, on glass

The Terps, who have five players averaging five rebounds or more, offsetting the loss of last year's leading rebounder Jamar Smith, have out-rebounded their opponent in all but two games and lead the ACC in the category.

Sophomore guard D.J. Strawberry estimated that the Terps, who shot a league-worst 63 percent from the foul line in going 20-12 last season, lost five games because of their free-throw shooting last year. They are currently the second-best free-throw shooting team in the ACC, at 71 percent.

"You have to make them because if you miss a few, it becomes something mental," said junior forward Nik Caner-Medley, whose free-throw shooting has improved to 83 percent after hitting 66 percent last season.

Williams, who said that his team's defense "stunk" after one exhibition game, feels that the Terps, like most teams, are a work in progress at that end.

There have been times where they have been very good, and in one specific game (see George Washington), they were extremely bad.

Maryland is surrendering 68.3 points a game, third most in the ACC, but opponents are shooting only 38 percent against the Terps.

"Scoring is not going to be a problem for us, but what you want to do is be a really good defensive team and be versatile enough to score off your defense," Williams said.

In perhaps its finest all-around effort of the season, Maryland used its pressure defense to run an athletic Memphis team off the court in a game that morphed into little more than a layup drill.

Can they slow it down?

Nobody doubts the explosiveness of the Terps. They are the third-highest-scoring team in the nation, scoring 88.1 points a game, yet there are questions on whether Maryland can succeed when forced to play exclusively a half-court game.

When Wisconsin slowed the Terps, they managed just 43 percent shooting. When George Washington was scoring at will, Maryland's offense became one-dimensional with Gilchrist lowering his shoulder and driving on nearly every possession.

The continued inside growth of Ibekwe and Garrison, who will be dueling against Wake Forest's Eric Williams and North Carolina's Sean May - two of the top post players in the ACC - over the next four days, would be a good start.

Garrison, who has vowed to play with more emotion, has been up and down. After a career-high 21 points against Wisconsin, Ibekwe has scored in single digits in four of seven games.

"If we are not hitting our outside shots, an inside presence has to be automatic," said Ibekwe, who is averaging 9.3 points and 7.5 rebounds a game.

Maryland's bench has been reliable, starting with Strawberry, one of the most valuable sixth men in the country. Forward James Gist, while still prone to freshman lapses, appears to be a future star in the ACC. And since the transfer of Hassan Fofana, Will Bowers is playing the best basketball of his brief Maryland career.

The Terps are still waiting on sophomore guard Mike Jones, the former McDonald's All-American who has struggled mightily with his shot this season (28 percent from the field) in limited minutes.

Against Mount St. Mary's on Tuesday, Jones hit his first shot and then after defensive breakdowns on three straight possessions, Williams pulled him from the game. His shooting and athleticism would give the Terps an added dimension off the bench.

"We can score, we can play good defense, we can crash the boards," said Garrison. "It's all on us, it's about how good we want to be. We know we are good, but you have to go out there and play like it."

Five good signs for Maryland ...

The Terps are hitting 71 percent of their free throws, more than 8 percent higher than what they shot from the line last season.

Along with leading Maryland in points, assists and steals, junior point guard John Gilchrist is second in the point guard-loaded ACC in assist/turnover ratio.

Despite losing top rebounder Jamar Smith to graduation, the Terps have out-rebounded the opposition in nine of their 11 games and lead the ACC in rebounding

In his past six games, sophomore center Will Bowers has 17 points and 22 rebounds. He totaled 16 points and 22 rebounds in 19 games last season.

Questions persist about Maryland's half-court offense, but the Terps are second in the ACC and third in the country in scoring (88 ppg.) and are averaging nearly 16 assists per game, two more than they averaged last year.

... and five bad ones

Mike Jones, the sophomore guard who is perhaps the best shooter on the team, is shooting just 28 percent from the field, hitting on 15 of 53 attempts.

Maryland has the third-worst scoring defense in the ACC, allowing 69.8 points a game, but that's not too alarming to Gary Williams because his team has played at a frenetic pace. The 101 points the Terps gave up to George Washington, however, was extremely alarming.

Counted on to offset the loss of Smith's points in the post, Ekene Ibekwe and Travis Garrison have both scored in double figures in just four of 11 games.

After tying a career high with 20 points against George Mason, pushing his scoring average to a team-high 15.2 points, junior Chris McCray has averaged just 11.8 points in six games since.

Memphis, which the Terps pounded by 23 on Thanksgiving weekend, is now 7-7 and Florida State is 8-6, leaving Maryland without a marquee win, but the good news is that the Terps will have plenty of chances.

Maryland today

Matchup: No. 22 Maryland (9-2, 1-0) vs. No. 3 North Carolina (12-1, 1-0)

Site: Dean Smith Center, Chapel Hill, N.C.

Time: Noon

TV/Radio: ESPN/WBAL (1090 AM)

Line: North Carolina by 13

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