- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 7, 2002

Lonny Baxter was the proven commodity last season. Chris Wilcox was a talented project. Tahj Holden was coming off an injury. Ryan Randle was in junior college.
The Maryland Terrapins came into the season knowing they had one of the nation's top outside games with starters Steve Blake, Juan Dixon and Byron Mouton returning from last season's Final Four team, but the front line was a question. Baxter was the MVP of the NCAA West Region, but otherwise the inside became suspect after starting power forward Terence Morris and reserve center Mike Mardesich completed their eligibility.
"I think that has quietly been overlooked," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "You lose two guys with that kind of experience, you wonder … Chris has improved and Ryan Randle has stepped up to go with Tahj and Lonny. That's really helped us."
The Terps enter the ACC tournament tomorrow as the top seed, facing the winner of tonight's play-in game between Florida State and Clemson. Second-ranked Maryland (25-3, 15-1 ACC) is seeking to win its first ACC championship since 1984 to go with its first outright regular-season title in 22 seasons.
No matter what, the Terps likely will have earned their first No.1 seed in the NCAA tournament when the pairings are announced Sunday.
Maryland, which has won 12 straight, has gained elite status because of Dixon and the team's outside prowess and a bruising, relentless inside game with four athletic, big men wearing down opponents. Maryland's low-post game is one gigantic reason the Terps are favored to snap their 17-year ACC tournament title drought and threaten for their first national championship.
"It's a great insurance policy to have four guys that can bang inside and take a pounding," Williamssaid. "The best thing about our four inside players is they get up and down the court pretty well. You don't get slowed down by anybody that comes into the game."
It starts with Baxter, the 6-foot-8, 260-pound senior with a low center of gravity. The nimble pivot man, who leads the league in blocks and is averaging 15.3 points and 8.4 rebounds, is usually the first option on offense.
Wilcox has proved much more than a flashy dunker, with a soft jump hook, fierce rebounding and strong defense that he lacked last season. The 6-10 sophomore is averaging 11.9 points and 7.6 rebounds, and can dominate games. He scored 21 points on 8-for-9 shooting, with 11 rebounds and four assists, in the regular-season finale against Virginia.
"It wasn't a surprise with Chris at all," said Blake, who leads the ACC in assists largely. "I already knew he was going to be that [good]. As far as Ryan, when he first got here, he had a lot of potential, but he started off slow during the season. It's great that he's picked it up. He's caught on fast."
Randle is the rebounding specialist, who uses his agile 6-9, 245-pound frame to power past defenders and is quick enough to go around them on the boards. The junior college transfer from Allegany (Md.) College also has soft hands around the basket. The droopy-eyed center nicknamed "Sleepy" is averaging 4.1 points and 3.2 rebounds in ACC games despite averaging barely more than nine minutes.
"It is really great because in practice situations we're playing against guys who should be starters," said Wilcox, an excellent interior passer. "I like to thank Ryan a lot. He really helps our team out in practice and in game situations. He's going to be a great player next year too. He's just following in Lonny's footsteps."
Holden missed a chunk of last season because of a broken foot before he finished strong to help Maryland get to the Final Four. The 6-10, 247-pound junior is a physical player who can keep sagging defenses honest with his outside shooting. Holden plays 19 minutes a game, averaging 5.8 points and has made 15 of 32 3-pointers (47 percent).
The big men are a major asset heading into postseason. Maryland could play three games in three days starting tomorrow and could play two games in three-day stretches in the NCAAs. Baxter sees it as a luxury that he can be more aggressive, knowing that he has help on the bench. It's all part of the Terps' power punch that continues to floor competitors.


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