COLLEGE PARK - -In retrospect, it felt like the Maryland Terrapins played two seasons in 2008-09.
There was the one in which coach Gary Williams' recruiting was questioned by fans and the media at a time when missing the NCAA men's basketball tournament seemed a distinct possibility.
But then Maryland rallied, won two games in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament and advanced to the NCAA tournament's second round. The rejuvenated Terps managed to rewrite the season's story line, turning it into a tale of perseverance and grit.
"You talk about being loyal, about staying tough, about getting better - that all happened last year, all those kinds of cliches fell into place," Williams said in an interview.
This season, expectations are higher. The Terps, who open against Charleston Southern on Friday, are ranked No. 26 in the Associated Press preseason poll and in the top 20 by a handful of forecasters. Among the returning players are four of the five top performers, including senior captains Greivis Vasquez, Landon Milbourne and Eric Hayes. They will be joined by two freshman forwards, Jordan Williams and James Padgett, who are expected to add some of the inside depth the Terps craved last season.
Maryland's improved size might permit Gary Williams to set up the inside post more often this season offensively, allowing the Terps to play an inside-outside game.
"What we can do this year, which we couldn't do last year, is put a Jordan Williams into the game at 6-9. And then we're as big as anybody we play against," the coach said.
Of course, there's more to it than just size. Here are five less obvious issues bearing on the success of the 2009-10 Terrapins:
* How many trips can Maryland make to the foul line? This proved to be a critical marker for the Terps last season, and will be again. Getting to the line at least 20 times or more is usually an indicator that Maryland is penetrating into the lane and not forcing perimeter shots.
In three regular-season wins - over Michigan State and at home against Michigan and Georgia Tech - the Terps got to the line an average of 21 times. But Maryland went to the line just six times in a loss to Miami and nine times in losing to Gonzaga.
The Terps were beaten by Wake Forest, 65-63, in the regular season and managed only two only foul shots. Maryland beat the Demon Deacons, 75-64, in a rematch during the ACC tournament largely on the strength of 21 made foul shots in 26 attempts.
Maryland ranked ninth in the nation in free-throw percentage last season at .758, tops in the ACC. The Terps need to maximize their foul-shooting advantage over other teams this season by consistently getting to the line.
* Can the Terps make rebounding a net gain? Maryland's rebound margin last season was minus-1.7 - the only ACC school out-rebounded by its opponents.
The Terps packed their zone defense into the lane and sent everybody to the boards. Sometimes it worked. Other times Maryland was simply too small.
This season, the Terps are counting on Williams and Padgett to rebound. The team is waiting to hear whether the university will declare power forward Dino Gregory (Mount St. Joseph) eligible after an undisclosed violation of team rules.
"We beat Georgia Tech [last season] when they had all these big guys with Dave Neal being our center," Vasquez said. "Now we have the tools that we needed."
Neal, now graduated, was listed at 6 feet 7 but conceded he wasn't that tall.
* Can Maryland hold serve at home? Gary Williams said on media day that the Terps hoped to win all their home games.
Williams grew accustomed to home wins at Cole Field House. The Terps went undefeated against nonconference opponents in the last dozen years at the old arena. Maryland later won 44 of 45 nonconference games at Comcast Center before falling to Ohio University in 2007.
In 2007-08, the Terrapins lost six home games, including four to ACC opponents.
Last season, Maryland dropped four home games, including three to ACC foes.
Terps fans hope the upward trend continues.
* Can Maryland top 35 percent from beyond the arc? For a small team, the Terps didn't shoot particularly well from three-point range. They won games more commonly with their trapping, pressing defense.
Maryland shot 33 percent on threes last season, ninth in the ACC. The Division I average was nearly 35 percent.
Among those looking to improve are Adrian Bowie (22 percent) and Sean Mosley (24 percent).
* Can Milbourne continue to improve as he has each season? The valuable forward went from 1.0 point per game to 8.2 to last season's 11.4. Coaches believe he's still getting better.
Milbourne is critical to the team's success because he can keep defenses honest with medium-range shots but also plays inside.
Vasquez is clearly the team's leader. He became the first Terp last season to lead in points, rebounds and assists.
But the Terps rely every game on Milbourne's toughness and inside-outside versatility.
"He was a tremendous force for us," Williams said.
2009-10 Maryland schedule
Date Opponent Time TV
Nov. 13 Charleston Southern 8 CSN
Nov. 17 Fairfield 8 CSN
Nov. 20 New Hampshire 8 -
Nov. 23 at Chaminade-a 9:30 ESPNU
Nov. 24 vs. Cincinnati /Vanderbilt-a 1:30/7 TBA
Nov. 25 at Maui Invitational TBA TBA
Dec. 1 at Indiana-b 7:30 ESPN2
Dec. 6 vs. Villanova-c 7:30 MASN
Dec. 12 Eastern Kentucky 4:30 CSN
Dec. 22 Winston-Salem State 8 CSN+
Dec. 27 Florida Atlantic 2 -
Dec. 30 William & Mary 7:30 CSN
Jan. 3 at UNC Greensboro 1 CSN
Jan. 10 Florida State* 5:30 FSN
Jan. 12 at Wake Forest* 8 Raycom
Jan. 16 at Boston College* 4 Raycom
Jan. 19 Longwood 8 CSN+
Jan. 23 North Carolina State* 6 ESPN2
Jan. 26 Miami* 7 ESPNU
Jan. 31 at Clemson* 5:30 FSN
Feb. 4 at Florida State* 9 Raycom
Feb. 7 North Carolina* 2 FSN
Feb. 10 Virginia* 7 ESPNU
Feb. 13 at Duke* 1 CBS
Feb. 17 at North Carolina State* 9 RSN
Feb. 20 Georgia Tech* 2 Raycom
Feb. 24 Clemson* 9 Raycom
Feb. 27 at Virginia Tech 4 Raycom
March 3 Duke* 9 ESPN
March 6 at Virginia* 1:30 Raycom
March 11-14 at ACC tournament-d
March 18, 20 at NCAA 1st, 2nd rounds
March 19, 21 at NCAA 1st, 2nd rounds
March 25, 27 at NCAA regionals
March 26, 28 at NCAA regionals
April 3, 5 at NCAA Final Four
a - EA Sports Maui Invitational; b - ACC/Big Ten Challenge; c - BB&T; Classic, Verizon Center; d - at Greensboro, N.C.
* - Atlantic Coast Conference game
CHARLESTON SOUTHERN @ MARYLAND
Friday, 8 p.m.
TV: Comcast SportsNet