Blacksburg, Va. -- Maryland men's basketball coach Gary Williams has pleaded all season for patience - from the fans, from the media, even from himself. It has to do with the fact that he is working with the youngest team he has had during his 19 years in College Park and three decades as a Division I head coach.
One thing is clear as the Terps return to Atlantic Coast Conference play this afternoon here against Virginia Tech: Williams has plenty of company in coaching such neophytes.
In fact, the Terps (10-6, 0-1 ACC) aren't the youngest team in the ACC.
They won't even be the youngest team on the court at Cassell Coliseum this afternoon.
The Hokies (9-6, 0-1) start two freshmen - forward Jeff Allen and point guard Malcolm Delaney - and three others are getting double-digit minutes. Wake Forest, which plays at Maryland on Tuesday night, starts two freshmen and has only one junior in the rotation.
Williams said inexperience breeds uncertainty.
"Anytime you're young, you can't assume anything," Williams said yesterday before the Terps practiced at Comcast Center. "Young guys, they can go hot and cold, there's no doubt about it. I'm not talking about shooting. I'm just talking about running a play. You have to make adjustments on the fly."
Said Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg: "When you have such a young team like we have, the one thing they're not used to is the intensity each and every day. We're going to get in league play, and every single game is going to be an event."
While Williams has often pointed to the fact that he has seven freshmen on the roster, his regular rotation includes only one, forward Cliff Tucker, with three others - guard Adrian Bowie, forward Braxton Dupree (Calvert Hall) and center Shane Walker - getting scattered minutes depending on the situation.
As a result, Williams is counting heavily on two seniors, forward James Gist and center Bambale Osby, along with sophomore guards Greivis Vasquez and Eric Hayes, to take a collective leadership role that has often been the domain of a single player.
"Leadership can come from anywhere," Williams said earlier this week. "For example, by the time Juan Dixon was a [redshirt] sophomore, he was a very good leader on our basketball team. Greivis and Eric have had to be leaders because they play leadership positions."
Gist's leadership responsibilities have grown exponentially this season. Like the Terps themselves, that phase of his game is a work in progress, as Gist acknowledged after Tuesday night's win over Holy Cross at Comcast Center.
"I'm in a position where I've got to make certain plays, and in the certain situations like the end of the first half, that was a dumb decision," Gist said of an ill-advised three-point shot he missed with five seconds left. "That wasn't the play I was expected to make. I've got to know what my role is and what I'm supposed to do."
Greenberg disagrees with the notion that all the leadership responsibility for the Hokies should fall on his only senior starter, forward Deron Washington.
"I don't think it's on Deron; it's on the team," Greenberg said. "I think it's unfair to put it on one guy. As a team, everyone's got to be a little better, they've got to be a little bit stronger with the ball, a little bit tougher. They've got to have a greater sense of urgency. They've got to pay attention to the little things."
Said Delaney, a former Towson Catholic standout who has started the past four games: "When we [freshmen] play together, we look really good. Actually having six freshmen playing a lot of minutes, probably more than any other team in the country, I didn't think we were going to come together this fast."
What Maryland and Virginia Tech are experiencing is a process that many teams, in the ACC and across the country, are going through. While no team appears to be built along the lines of Michigan's fabled - and flawed - Fab Five that feature an all-freshman starting lineup, many are counting on freshmen.
In the ACC, James Johnson and Jeff Teague are Wake Forest's two top scorers, as is North Carolina State's J.J. Hickson. Duke's Kyle Singler has been called the program's best frontcourt freshman since Christian Laettner. Only top-ranked North Carolina is not relying on freshmen.
"In the old days, we used to talk about veteran teams being seniors with some juniors; now it's juniors with some sophomores," said Tar Heels coach Roy Williams, who starts two juniors and three sophomores. "Young players are so much more experienced, they're so much more worldly, they've done so many different things than they did 20 years ago."
What hasn't changed are the expectations of fans and media and coaches.
"Our expectation is to make the [NCAA] tournament," Greenberg said. "We've got to obviously win our share of league games, but that's our goal. If you're playing in this league, that's got to be your goal whether you're a young team, an old team or a middle-of-the-road team. It makes no difference."