- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 3, 2006

As the Maryland basketball team shuffled off the floor after scratching out a one-point victory in its exhibition opener on Nov. 1, it was more than fair to wonder just how different a year it would be for the Terrapins.

It took the Terps all of four weeks and eight real games to provide an emphatic answer.

No. 23 Maryland (8-0) enters its meeting with Notre Dame (5-1) tonight in the BB&T; Classic at Verizon Center appearing nothing like a team in possession of the same flaws that doomed its two immediate predecessors to NIT trips.

Perimeter defense is no longer a deficiency, the Terps’ passing is crisper than it has been in years and Maryland has actually looked smooth while charging to its best start since winning 10 straight to open the 1998-99 season.

“A month ago, we were struggling with Canadian teams and teams that play at the YMCA,” forward Bambale Osby said. “We’ve gotten a lot better. We’ve had some guys prove that they’re committed to the team and that they really want to focus. We feel a lot better and we’re way more confident and we have some big wins under us. I think we believe we can play.”

All of the evidence to date suggests it’s true. Maryland defeated Michigan State to win the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic last month, then went to Illinois on Tuesday and ended the Fighting Illini’s 51-game nonconference home winning streak.

It was a victory earned without forward Ekene Ibekwe (sprained left ankle), and Osby’s 10-point, eight-rebound performance during an emergency start reinforced the Terps’ burgeoning tendency to find answers whenever usually productive players are quiet or unavailable.

Maryland already has had seven players score in double figures, seven grab at least six rebounds and five earn five assists at least once. It’s created a balance capable of offsetting the loss of an Ibekwe, who practiced Thursday and should be available tonight, Gary Williams said.

“We have a lot of weapons on this team,” forward James Gist said. “No team can actually really prepare for us because at any point of any game, somebody else could have a breakout game and have a good game.”

A benefit of the balance is a deeper rotation than usual. The Terps have regularly cycled at least eight players and usually more in the first month, and it has created flexibility for Williams during games.

Against Illinois, the Terps used a four-guard set — a ploy Williams hinted was a possibility in the preseason — during brief stretches of both halves to counter a smaller lineup while allowing their big men to receive some rest on a night Maryland was shorthanded in the frontcourt.

“We’re deeper. Guys have proven they can play,” Williams said. “Until they prove differently, I’m going to use them. You have great practices that way because guys know they’re going to play, so they’re playing so that they look good on the court in games.”

Osby wasn’t the only usual reserve to play a vital role in Tuesday’s victory. Freshman Greivis Vasquez scored 17 points, including 15 in a dynamic second-half performance, and center Will Bowers played a season-high 16 minutes.

“The fact we have guys that can come off the bench and contribute and we can still win big road games even when starters are out or bigger performers are out, that says a lot,” Osby said. “What it says, I can’t tell you. It gives you good feelings.”

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