- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 30, 2002

ATLANTA Gary Williams chuckled at midcourt as Byron Mouton threw the ball in the air, let it bounce twice and then delivered a soft dunk yesterday afternoon inside the Georgia Dome. Maryland had held a more constructive, closed practice earlier in the day before showing off for some 4,000 fans who came to see the Terrapins' shootaround in preparation for tonight's Final Four showdown with Kansas.

The relaxed Williams even spent time showing ballboys the proper wrist action for free throws before the session concluded with a team photo on top of the Final Four logo. While the Terps enjoy the glare of a second straight appearance in college basketball's showcase, their coach has implemented a keep-it-loose philosophy.

"He's been a lot more calm," said guard Drew Nicholas, comparing his coach's demeanor to that of a year ago. "He understands how good of a basketball team we are. He's patient with us.

"Sometimes in practice, things aren't going exactly how it is supposed to. The black team [reserves] is getting rebounds all over the place. He's not lashing out. He's not giving those outbursts that some might think he would be doing this week. He's staying patient with us and trying to get us focused mentally."

The Terps (30-4) are the only returnees from last season's Final Four and generally have taken a businesslike approach to the weekend. But they are also picking their spots to have fun, like yesterday's impromptu dunking practice. Kansas (33-3), in its first Final Four since 1993, used part of its 50 minutes in the Georgia Dome to hold a structured halfcourt scrimmage a marked contrast to Maryland's crowd-pleasing session.

"We went through it last year," said Williams, of dealing with the Final Four media circus and a week of hype. "One thing we probably learned last year was, you play big games in the season. This is maybe a little bigger game."

A little bigger? This would be the biggest victory in the storied program's history, sending Maryland into its first national championship game. The Terps, who set a program standard by making their first Final Four last season, may be loose but they also are determined. With a veteran roster led by three seniors in All-American Juan Dixon, East Region MVP Lonny Baxter and fiery Mouton, this appears to be Maryland's best chance to win a title.

"We had [a great] opportunity to do something special last season, and we let it slip away," said Dixon, referring to Maryland blowing a 22-point lead and losing to eventual national champion Duke in the semifinals. "Now we are here again. We worked hard to get back here, and we want to have a different ending."

To get to Monday's final, Maryland will have to beat the nation's highest-scoring team. Kansas, led by All-American power forward Drew Gooden. employed a run-first philosophy to average 91.0 points. The Terps average 85.3 points, and are the second-leading passing team in the country after averaging 20.4 assists in the regular season. Kansas is first with 21.5 dishes a game and shoots 3-pointers at a 42-percent clip.

"We don't mind getting into a track meet," said Dixon, who is making 54 percent of his 3-pointers in the tournament after scoring 29, 29, 19 and 27 points in four games. "But I think we have to take away their transition."

Dixon will match up with Kirk Hinrich, who is still recovering from a sprained ankle suffered in the first round.

The Terps plan to use their advantage in bulk with 6-foot-8, 260-pound center Baxter and Chris Wilcox to pound the slimmer Jayhawks in the post and neutralize the powerful rebounding team. Gooden, a 6-foot-10 junior, averages 20.0 points and 11.5 rebounds and had a superhuman 20 rebounds in the Midwest Region final against Oregon. Kansas had 63 in the game, outrebounding the lame Ducks by 29.

Gooden is part of a particularly mobile front line, along with 6-9, 250-pound junior Nick Collison, that complements Kansas' three-guard offense. Maryland's Baxter is enjoying a terrific tournament, coming off a season-high 29 points against Connecticut, and plans to throw his 260 pounds of muscle around on the slighter Jayhawks. The key inside match-up could be Wilcox on Gooden.

"In all our 'big games,' Chris has stepped up mentally for us," said Nicholas, of the sometimes spectacular and sometimes silent power forward. "A lot of those games we won because of him. He's going to have a tough assignment. He is guarding one of the best two or three players in the nation. If he can do a great job defensively and we rebound the basketball, we should be in great shape."

Williams calls Kansas perhaps the best rebounding team in the country. The Jayhawks average 15 offensive rebounds and use this knack as a regular part of their offense.

"When you have two great inside player players like me and Chris going against Gooden and Collison, it doesn't get any better than that," Baxter said. "It's going to be a very physical inside game."

The Terps hope experience will be a factor. Although the Jayhawks start three juniors and a senior, they have a freshman point guard in Aaron Miles, and their top two reserves also are freshman.

Point man Steve Blake is Maryland's only true ballhandler, while Kansas has several capable playmakers. Blake, a junior who is second nationally with 8.2 assists, struggled in the two games last week before dropping a staggering 3-pointer to seal a close win over Connecticut.

Blake said he's not concerned about last week, only about tonight. It's a philosophy that has been a strength of the Terps all season, focusing themselves only with the situation at hand and blocking out distractions. It's an approach that Williams has found more comfortable the second time around in the Final Four.

"This year, we understand what it takes to win," Nicholas said. "We understand the opportunity at hand. We're really just going to go out there and relish the opportunity."

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