Maryland forward James Gist notes just how different things are for the Terrapins this year, even mentioning how coach Gary Williams told the players he was proud of their performance in three opening victories.
And how frequently did the junior hear that sentiment in his first two seasons?
"Not that often," Gist said sheepishly. "Coach said he likes the way we're playing. To sit there and hear Coach say he likes the way we're playing, players like to hear that."
There is good reason for Williams' praise for the Terps, who even against overmatched opponents have demonstrated a zeal absent from the start of last season's interminable death march to the NIT. They'll seek to continue the pattern tonight against St. John's (2-0) in the semifinals of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic at New York's Madison Square Garden.
The offense is running smoother, a product not just of having a true point guard but also players with basketball savvy. The Terps have yet to start a game sluggishly, and though they're not polished, it is not difficult to envision gradual improvement.
At the other end of the court, the Terps' transformation is even more startling. After providing a shooter's version of an all-you-can-eat buffet last season -- endless open looks, weak post defense and usually little interest in improving either -- Maryland has shown glimpses of becoming a pesky defensive team again.
And it's starting with a sweltering press, which helped force 69 turnovers in the Terps' first three games and is a natural weapon for Maryland's long, rangy perimeter players. Of course, athleticism on the wings was supposed to be an asset last season as well.
So far the Terps have used their pressure defense -- a style of play nearly everyone has abandoned as a primary staple over the last 10 years -- intermittently while bolstering their transition game.
"It tires out teams, and if you can catch them when they're tired and you're pretty fresh out there, that's when you need the chance to make a run like that," Williams said. "We like pressing this year. I've always felt the best pressing teams, you have to like to press to press well."
As much as the Terps' offense is benefiting, the rest of Maryland's defense is as well. Weary opponents are more likely to have a lazy pass picked off, and a point guard concerned with avoiding a turnover doesn't have as much time to set an offense.
That in turn provides a greater margin of error both in the post and from the 3-point line, where the Terps have held opponents to 22.7 percent (17-for-75) shooting.
"I think our pressure defense makes us play better halfcourt defense," senior guard D.J. Strawberry said. "Sometimes when we back out, we don't play as great halfcourt defense. We have to get to where we don't need our pressure defense to ignite our halfcourt defense so we can play the same way with pressure and the same way without pressure."
Williams always has found the press an attractive option, but Maryland will not turn into the second coming of the relentless Arkansas and Kentucky teams of the 1990s. Instead, the Terps will continue to press when it suits them, which should be with greater frequency than their defense-deficient predecessors were inclined to.
"These guys have been willing to do it in practice, and it carries over into games," Williams said. "It's going to be selective. It's not going to be the same every game, depending on who we play. If we play a game where we feel we have to press for 40 minutes, then that's the way we have to play."
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