- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 8, 2001

Juan Dixon is the emotional sparkplug on the Maryland basketball team, a third-team All-America guard known for his sharpshooting and fiery attitude. Lonny Baxter is the always composed center who describes himself as nonchalant the West Region MVP of last year's NCAA tournament rarely shows emotion.
But Dixon unknowingly found a way to stir up Baxter in a recent conversation about the coming season.
"I said, 'Man, we have to get back to the Final Four,'" said Dixon, who watched a scowl come over Baxter's face before hearing a sharp, direct response. "Lonny said, 'No, we have to get to the championship.' I was like, whoa."
The talk surrounding the second-ranked Terrapins these days isn't about repeating their first visit to the Final Four where Maryland fell to eventual champion Duke in the semifinals but claiming the national title themselves. Seniors Dixon and Baxter are the main reason for the boundless optimism as they form perhaps the most lethal inside-out tandem in college basketball.
The Terps take their high expectations to Madison Square Garden tonight as they open the season against national runner-up Arizona in the Coaches vs. Cancer IKON Classic. The winner will face the winner of No. 6 Florida and 15th-ranked Temple tomorrow for the championship.
Lute Olson's Wildcats have been ravaged by early defections to the NBA. The only returner is starting point guard Jason Gardner, who initially declared for the NBA Draft but changed his mind. Unranked Arizona (28-8 last season) has only nine scholarship players, no seniors and starts two freshmen.
In contrast, the Terps (25-11 last season) return four starters and will likely start three seniors and two juniors. Tahj Holden is expected to start ahead of Chris Wilcox at power forward, although Maryland coach Gary Williams hasn't made it official. The Terps bring back seven members of the 10-man rotation that won 10 of its final 12 games last season, and cut down the nets in the West Region.
"We have great players at every position," said Baxter, who earned his region MVP for dominating Georgetown and Stanford.
The 6-foot-8, 260-pound Baxter emerged as one of the nation's top big men last season while averaging 15.6 points and 7.9 rebounds. Dixon averaged 18.2 points and the 6-3 guard caused havoc on defense, leading the ACC in steals. The duo spent the summer playing leading the U.S. national team to a bronze medal in the World University Games in China.
While Baxter and Dixon are the headliners, there are five other proven returnees who play supporting roles. Junior point guard Steve Blake returns as the ACC's assist leader, after dishing out 6.9 a game last season, and senior Byron Mouton returns as the starting small forward.
"We're very fortunate the way college basketball is these days to have three seniors," Williams said. "I expect Byron to have a better year this year. He will probably have more minutes."
Explosive power forward Chris Wilcox has shown flashes of greatness, and the sophomore should have a more significant role. Junior guard Drew Nicholas has shown that he can be productive at point or shooting guard and also may see time in a three-guard lineup.
The top newcomer is Ryan Randle, a transfer from Allegany (Md.) Junior College. The 6-9, 245-pound center/forward has trimmed down and should help fill the void left by starting power forward Terence Morris, now with the NBA's Houston Rockets, and 7-footer Mike Mardesich. The Terps' depth took a hit when backup small forward and sixth man Danny Miller transferred to Notre Dame.
"We don't have another natural small forward [besides Mouton]," Williams said. "We can put one of our big guys [Holden or Wilcox] in there. We can put Drew Nicholas in there with Steve and Juan in the backcourt."
The Terps have been cramming for the early opener and have had just 31/2 weeks to prepare for the Wildcats. Williams warned that tonight's team will be vastly different from the one seen in the ACC or at tournament time.
"You don't rush it," said Williams, who feels conditioning is the most important commodity at this point. "I would rather be good at a couple things than not good at several. The league really is the most important thing no matter who you play in the preseason. We'll know by tomorrow what we have to work on."
One thing they won't have to work on is high expectations the Terps are indeed already pointing toward the Final Four in Atlanta's Georgia Dome.
"This year is about winning the national championship," Holden said. "Last year, we got to the Final Four and said, 'Oh, we have a shot at winning the national championship.' But I don't believe we were actually going for it. We were playing for the Final Four. This year we've been there and know what's going on, so we want to win the national championship."


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