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Firing up Terps seniors, Williams ready to refuel

COLLEGE PARK — COLLEGE PARK -- The day before the Maryland men's basketball team played Manhattan College at Comcast Center, Terrapins coach Gary Williams was asked if he had begun to think about next season.

"Not till this one's over," he said. "I never do that."

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Less than 24 hours later, Manhattan had bounced the No. 1-seeded Terps from the first round of the National Invitation Tournament, and Williams immediately began to address the work that needs to be done if Maryland is to restore its tradition of 11 straight NCAA tournament appearances, before it played in the NIT the past two seasons.

Williams put the onus on the players, who seemed to agree the one thing that needs to change is their attitude, and publicly called for senior leadership, increased mental and physical toughness and a greater sense of team.

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"He definitely wants a change," junior guard D.J. Strawberry said. "He said he's going to change this team. It's going to take a lot of work, and it's going to take a lot of work from us. We have to change more than he has to change. He's a great coach. He's done it. We have to change. We have to dedicate ourselves to basketball and love the game even more."

It was an unpredictable season for the Terps, and one in which Maryland was able to both overcome obstacles and turn over opportunities. The Terps came out strong in their first game without leading scorer Chris McCray, who was declared academically ineligible midway through the season, and beat Georgia Tech soundly in Atlanta for their first conference road win of the season.

And then they faltered.

Maryland ended the regular season with a strong three-game stretch, though, in which the Terps played some of their best defense to salvage a .500 record in the Atlantic Coast Conference and win a game in the ACC tournament.

Then they played one of their worst halves of the season against Boston College, making just seven field goals en route to a 41-22 halftime deficit. Maryland transferred those same problems into the NIT and finished with a 19-13 record.

"We need a couple things to happen with our team and we'll be fine," Williams said. "The good thing is, I know what it's going to take. Now, the tough part is to make it happen. It's one thing to know it, but as the coach, you can't get out there and play. You try to get that through to your players and you hope they're receptive."

Williams said his team needs to get stronger, as evidenced by numerous loose balls the Terps were beaten to this season.

"That comes from two things," he said. "That comes from strength and wanting the ball more than the other team does. You've got to want that."

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When pressed by a reporter for more specific areas he wanted to see improvement in, Williams said, "There's a lot of things, but let's leave it at that one."

The one thing Maryland lacked this season was a true point guard, and at times the problem was glaring. Strawberry, who was mainly a forward in high school, took over the position after the early departure of John Gilchrist and struggled at times. He led the team with 94 turnovers, almost three per game.

"D.J. Strawberry certainly has some things to work on, but proved in big games that he's pretty good defensively, and this experience of handling the ball this year certainly has made him a better guard," Williams said. "He really made the effort this year."

Strawberry split some time at point guard with senior Sterling Ledbetter and Parrish Brown, a junior-college transfer from Chicago who was forced to learn quickly because of the unexpected departure of two guards.

"I used this year as a learning experience, learning everything we ran and about the competition of the ACC," Brown said. "In the offseason, I'm going to work on my ball-handing, shooting and conditioning so I can come back next year and have a good season."

The Terps are hoping the arrival of Maryland's freshman class will help the point guard situation - 6-foot-3 Eric Hayes from Potomac, Va., was recruited specifically for that position. Maryland also signed Greivis Vasquez, a versatile guard from Montrose Christian in Rockville, Jerome Burney Jr., a 6-9 power forward from Westlake High in Atlanta, and Landon Milbourne, a 6-6 small forward at Oak Hill Academy in Virginia.

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"I know we have a group coming in that are basketball players and want to get it done," Williams said. "Hopefully that will be infectious, and we'll go from there."

It's the seniors, though, Williams said he will rely on heavily. In addition to Strawberry, next year's senior class will include Brown, forward Ekene Ibekwe, center Will Bowers, guard Mike Jones and walk-on Gini Chukura.

"We need guys pulling other guys," Williams said. "The seniors always have a lot to do with the work ethic of the team, how much time they spend in the gym alone.

"Seniors, it's their team," he said. "They've played against the teams that are ranked No. 1 in the country. They've seen how they play. How do we play like that? That's got to be our goal, to get back to that. We have played like that here. We want to get back to playing like that."

Strawberry said he's willing to do whatever it takes.

"We don't want it to end like this," Strawberry said, referring to his senior class and a third NIT finish. Strawberry said the team needs to be more aggressive defensively, and a lot of teams "probably think [Maryland] is soft." The Terps finished the season with the worst scoring defense in the ACC, allowing an average of 73.1 points.

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"We have to have the attitude where our man is not going to score on us," Strawberry said. "When we have that attitude, it's going to make us a better team, it's going to make a tougher team because we're going to want it. We have to want it."

heather.dinich@baltsun.com

Five questions for Terps

Who will be Maryland's point guard?

If nothing else, the Terps will at least have more options and experience. The first step is to see how incoming freshman guard Eric Hayes (Potomac, Va.) adapts to the rigors of Division I, and how quickly he learns Maryland's offense. Parrish Brown, who will be a senior, benefited from his 8.6 minutes per game and should improve this offseason. If Maryland can comfortably move D.J. Strawberry back to shooting guard or small forward, though, the team is likely to improve on both sides of the ball. Can Ekene Ibekwe, James Gist and Will Bowers become consistent inside forces?

Ibekwe and Gist have proved they have the athleticism and ability, but Bowers, despite his 7-foot-1 frame, is still a question mark, and part of that might be attributed to confidence. Ibekwe finished as the team's leading rebounder with an average of 6.6, and Gist led the team with 51 blocks as a sophomore. Bowers needs more than 1.3 rebounds per game to be considered a force. Will Maryland return to the NCAA tournament?

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If the Terps have a serious rededication and gut-check during the offseason - starting yesterday - there's no reason they shouldn't return. Maryland will have six seniors, including one of the best open shooters in the conference in Mike Jones, and a gritty, emotional defensive player in Strawberry. Gist and Ibekwe will give the Terps a strong inside presence, and a highly touted recruiting class should finally give Maryland some depth and choices. Not to mention the fact that coach Gary Williams will do everything in his power not to play in the National Invitation Tournament - again. Is Jones capable of being the Terps' go-to player?

Williams held his thumb and index finger about an inch apart when he described how close Jones is to being a great player. He has the athleticism and made significant improvement this season when called upon to replace the team's leading scorer. He's proved he can make clutch shots, but he needs to be more consistent on defense and aware of what's happening elsewhere on the court. What will the rest of the Atlantic Coast Conference look like next year?

Remember Georgia Tech, the team Maryland might want to write a thank-you note to for three W's this season? Don't count on the Yellow Jackets being a pushover next time around. Coach Paul Hewitt learned from his mistakes, and the team needed this year to regroup after losing six players. North Carolina, which was a year ahead of schedule after losing its top seven scorers, should be even better. Duke will lose senior standouts J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams, but the Blue Devils are known for reloading. Overall, the league should be better, older and wiser.

Heather A. Dinich


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