- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 14, 2009

Greivis Vasquez was nearly a fortnight removed from his most recent game at Comcast Center, and there were a pair of top-20 women’s teams racing into the locker room.

Still, Vasquez was an attraction. He signed autographs on small shreds of paper, had photos taken with young fans and emphatically shook hands with fans seated courtside. All the work of a showman with Vasquez’s flair.

It was a reminder that the guard remains beloved by many fans at Maryland even when he’s not playing. Arguably the most recognizable student on the College Park campus, Vasquez can be a polarizing figure for an impatient fan base.

Perhaps it is the direction of the season as the Terrapins (15-8, 4-5 ACC) enter Saturday’s game against Virginia Tech (16-7, 6-3). Maybe it’s Vasquez’s performance, since his scoring and rebounding are both down modestly (though up on a per-minute basis) as the unquestioned nexus of Maryland’s offense.

Whatever the cause, his junior season has not been quite as smooth as anyone expected.

“If I would be a sophomore or a freshman and playing the way I’m playing, people would probably say it would be OK,” Vasquez said. “I just know I have to keep working. This is where I want to be at. I want to be the main guy and work hard and prove to people I can play in this league. I’ve already proven that. It’s just frustrating when you’re not doing as good as you’re supposed to be doing.”

Or when the work isn’t entirely appreciated.

One of the season’s more stunning developments came in the ACC opener, when Vasquez repeatedly cursed toward students during a victory against Georgia Tech. Vasquez took offense to some jeers, telling reporters afterward, “If they don’t want to believe in us, they can get the hell out.”

Just three weeks later, he was in sync with those same fans, exhorting them to scream as Maryland fended off Miami for a crucial victory. Vasquez was back to being a beloved star, his near triple-double no doubt washing some of the recent angst away.

“I figure the fans would love him. He’s the best player on the team. I’m definitely surprised,” guard Adrian Bowie said. “It’s weird to me. I get as surprised when they start booing and all this stuff as he does.”

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Nizar Dowla and Melissa Rubin often have plenty of time to burn on a Maryland game day. The seniors are usually among the first to scamper into Comcast when doors open to students two hours before tip.

They are part of a group that quickly claims front-row seats near midcourt opposite the benches, an ideal perch. They’re loud, witty and on a first-name basis with the usher who monitors their section.

Unsurprisingly, they’re not the ones who grouse about Vasquez and at times shout down boos from a few rows away, but they can see why he might grow frustrated with finicky fans.

“When he doesn’t try to be the hero - like against Florida State, he went for the layup, he was going to get fouled and he passed back to [Landon] Milbourne,” Rubin said before a recent game. “The announcers were like, ‘He should have gone up for the shot and gotten fouled and then tried to get the two points.’ It’s like, ‘What do you people want from him?’ ”

It would seem that some demand mistake-free performances. At times, Vasquez can deliver, as he did with a 19-point outing Sunday at Georgia Tech. He also has produced a few single-digit clunkers in the past month.

That just makes Vasquez a talented albeit imperfect player on an imperfect team, a target for both praise and scorn.

“I don’t know why they do that,” Vasquez said. “That’s a great question. Even though sometimes I’m out there and it seems like I’m invisible, I feel I have to be aggressive and help my teammates through my experience. Plus I’m playing hard. It’s not like I’m not trying to play hard. I’m glad I see some people appreciate it. I’m sure a lot of people appreciate that, too.”

One factor is Vasquez’s ability to draw attention to himself. From emotional outbursts to his patented shimmy after an important shot, the Venezuelan’s style doesn’t lend itself to blending in. Toss in his talent and the pro rumblings that have followed him ever since he opted not to enter his name into the NBA Draft last spring, and Vasquez is nearly as much a magnet for analysis as coach Gary Williams.

“We expect a lot of Greivis,” Dowla said, trying to explain the fan base as a whole. “So when he doesn’t meet high expectations, people get upset.”

Added guard Eric Hayes: “He has a lot on his shoulders here. He has a lot of criticism about the way he plays and the way he acts on the court. I think it’s just something that comes with the territory of being who he is.”

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Vasquez’s morning routine includes extra shooting, a workout with an old high school coach and then class before practicing more in the afternoon.

The time investment isn’t in question; it’s how efficiently he uses it, even in a season when he is the only player in the ACC averaging at least 16 points, five rebounds and four assists.

“I think my problems have been mental,” Vasquez said. “I’ve let things in my head get to me, and not working as hard mentally, it’s like wasting my energy. Fans are always going to be fans. I think our fans are good.”

For the most part, anyway. Still, last month’s brief rift remains a bit befuddling considering it touches on both criticism of the Terps’ best player and the ever-nebulous area of the appropriateness of booing an amateur athlete.

“I think it’s too much because we’re a team,” said Bowie, Vasquez’s teammate at Montrose Christian. “It’s not just Greivis by himself. I think it’s entirely too much. Yeah, you can tell it gets to him. Any player that loves the game as much as he does, it’ll get to him.”

But not enough to extract much of Vasquez’s bravado. He has matured some since he joined the Terps, but some swashbuckling brio still emerges from time to time.

After all, he is a showman, eager to leave people craving more regardless of their response in the past.

“I will never give up, and I’m going to leave Maryland with a great performance,” Vasquez said. “It’s just like my freshman year when I told all you guys we were going to make it to the tournament, and we did make it. I’m going to leave Maryland through the main door, not through the back door.

“Anybody can say whatever they want to say, but I’m going to work hard to get what I want to get and to get my team where it needs to be.”

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