COLLEGE PARK -- When Maryland forward Landon Milbourne walked into coach Gary Williams' office this past spring, Williams braced himself for the bad news. After a season in which Milbourne averaged 4.8 minutes and was stuck behind former starter D.J. Strawberry, Williams said he thought Milbourne had come to tell him he wanted to transfer.
Instead, Milbourne came seeking "any kind of advice, anything he would tell me to make my situation better, just to show him I was interested. I really wanted to play," he said.
That was when Williams said he "gained new respect" for Milbourne - a 6-foot-7, 207-pound sophomore who now has a strong chance at earning a starting role this season, which officially begins at 8 tonight at Maryland Madness.
"He didn't hang his head at all," Williams said yesterday at media day. "Some guys, the first thing they do when they don't play a lot as a freshman, they come in and they say they're thinking about transferring. When Landon came in, you go, 'Oh, here it comes.' In Landon's case, he comes in and he says, 'Coach, what can I do? I want to play next year.'
"That's all he ever wanted," Williams said. "He wants to be given the opportunity to play, and he's certainly going to get that."
Williams hasn't named his starting lineup, but senior forwards James Gist and Bambale Osby and sophomore guards Eric Hayes and Greivis Vasquez are the most experienced players returning to a roster with six true freshmen. The fifth spot is up for grabs, and if Williams wants to go with a taller lineup, Milbourne's efforts in the offseason and his experience - albeit limited - have made him a front-runner. The other likely candidate is former Mount St. Joseph standout Dino Gregory.
"OK, you put those four guys out there and say they're the four starters at their positions," Williams said. "There's probably no 3 man [small forward] there. You need somebody to step up. A guy like Dino Gregory can be a 3-4 at this level. ... There's a lot of ways to go. It would be nice if Landon could be that guy, but it's wide open. You don't go in with preconceived notions about that."
The advantage Milbourne has is he played in 16 games this past season, but his most significant game experience came this past summer. Milbourne played with the East Coast All-Stars on a 10-day tour through Holland and Belgium, where he averaged 13.1 points and 3.6 rebounds.
"Playing against some older guys and guys that have more experience than me, I definitely learned a lot," he said. "My knowledge of the game has grown a little bit more since I played the whole summer."
His teammates said they have noticed a difference.
"It's funny because he went from last year not getting on the court to this year not getting off the court," Osby said. "We always say that. Dino's like, 'Nah, I'm going to take some of his time.' Landon has a higher skill level and a higher experience level playing as much as he has and playing with us last year in practice. It's going to be big for Landon this year. He says he's ready. We'll see."
Williams said Milbourne (Oak Hill Academy) is a true small forward, and he's looking for a guard-forward combination who can shoot the jumper but also play defense on the interior and get the offensive rebounds.
If Williams wanted to go with a smaller lineup, he could use freshman guard Adrian Bowie, from Montrose Christian. With newcomers making up nearly half the team, younger players will have to contribute, but Gist said Milbourne put in the work he needed to be a key contributor.
"I've seen Landon struggle a whole lot after last year because he didn't play," Gist said. "That's real frustrating for somebody coming from being a star in high school. That's one thing that's really going to drive Landon. ... I think Landon is going to surprise a lot of people this year."
Milbourne said the advice he received from Williams after last season "paid off a lot."
"He told me to keep my head in it, don't get discouraged, go out there and work hard every day," Milbourne said. "I've been looking forward to this all my life."