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Terps’ Strawberry wings it

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There wasn't a game last season when Maryland's D.J. Strawberry didn't feel thousands of eyes examining him as he played point guard regularly for the first time.

Coaches studied his decision-making, teammates sized up his poise, opponents stared at his ball handling and fans ... well, they analyzed just about everything possible.

There weren't enough mixed metaphors to fully describe the situation; perhaps a confluence of a spotlight under a microscope in a fish bowl would do the trick.

And Strawberry knew it.

"Every time you stepped on the court, everybody was looking at me and how I was going to do and how I was going to play that night," Strawberry said. "Was I going to turn the ball over eight times or was I going to have eight assists? I didn't even know what I was going do that night."

Now the uncertainty is gone, as is the necessity for the senior to run the Terrapins' offense. Others handle those chores capably, freeing Strawberry to thrive on the wing while disrupting opponents with his athleticism on defense.

One simple switch -- Strawberry's return to his natural position -- has fueled the No. 23 Terps during their best start (7-0) in eight years. He leads Maryland in scoring (16.0) and steals (2.6), ranks second in rebounding (5.1) and has done a bit of everything in the first month of the season.

He might be asked to do even more tonight at Illinois (7-0) if the Terps play without forward Ekene Ibekwe, who sprained his left ankle Friday and did not practice Sunday. Yet everything Strawberry has done this season suggests there isn't a role he couldn't fill in a pinch.

"He just keeps working," coach Gary Williams said. "He doesn't want to come out, and you almost have to drag him off the court to get him out of there. He's really gotten better. His biggest concern is making us better. He's one of the better leaders I've had for a while."

It's a job Strawberry has seized since a first-round NIT loss in March. It was Maryland's second straight trip to the wrong postseason tournament, and Strawberry stood glumly at his locker afterward, steeling himself long enough to declare the Terps needed to dedicate themselves to the game and love it more than before.

No one embraced either quality as much as Strawberry, who devoted his summer to avoiding the dread of watching the NCAA tournament selection show without knowing if his team would pop up on the screen -- and to ensuring his teammates felt the same way.

"Sometimes, I'm an in-your-face guy," Strawberry said. "When we're not focused and we're not on our game, we look bad. You have to have pride, and you have to want to look good and you have to want to be a great team. When people are doing things they're not supposed to be doing, I just step in and be the leader. I don't want to tell you what I say sometimes, but you kind of have to be that big brother to everybody."

Strawberry isn't confined to a verbal schtick. He has nurtured freshman guards Eric Hayes and Greivis Vasquez during their acclimation to the college game.

He has referenced the importance of "having fun" after every game, and no one has enjoyed themselves more than Strawberry, who has clapped his hands in celebration several times this season after a big play.

Then there's his frenetic on-court style, from his hectoring of ball handlers to his ability to intercept passes and start fast breaks to his creativity at the offensive end.

"He just plays so aggressive on defense and even on offense that he just really transmits something to the other players and everybody plays aggressive so we can win the game," Vasquez said. "He passes that to all the players, especially me. I want to play aggressive just like him."

Strawberry's aggression was effectively neutralized last season. He was stuck running the offense and covering an opponent's best guard all season, producing a punishing dual grind.

The mental strain compounded a greater problem: Strawberry, a player who relied on instincts before a torn ACL ended his sophomore season, was forced to think about every situation thrown at him while adjusting to point guard and returning from injury.

"You want to really know the game well, but when the game starts you want to be able to react," Williams said. "When he was playing point guard he couldn't react like he normally does. He's a great reaction player. All great defensive players are like that. I think there was so much on his mind: 'Coach wants me to do this.' He doesn't have to worry about that this year."

The experience of a season ago brought some benefits. Strawberry understands better not just the strain four teammates who want the ball can place on a point guard but the game itself. ("It was a big eye-opener for me that I didn't know as much of the game as I thought I did," Strawberry said.)

Savvier, fully healthy and better prepared than ever, Strawberry is thriving by any statistical measure. Yet he believes his biggest contribution to the Terps' start is intangible -- but still easy enough for everyone in the arena to see.

"I know this team goes off my energy and my emotion," Strawberry said. "So I try to bring that early to games so everyone else can get going and hopefully we can come up with the win later on."

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