- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 21, 2002

The mesmerizing Sears Trophy that represents the national championship is the first thing that strikes you as you walk into new Comcast Center. The Final Four logo from the Georgia Dome floor where Maryland won the title last year is mounted on a wall. The banner from the first championship in program history will be unfurled before Sunday's season opener.

The reminders of the greatest season in Maryland history are all around, though many of the principals that led the Terps to college basketball's pinnacle are gone. Cole Field House is now part of history, as are the college careers of Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter.

Creaky, beloved Cole was replaced by a sterling, $125million arena filled with modern amenities such as luxury boxes and many more bathrooms. Four of last year's starters ended their careers at Cole. They have been replaced by five talented newcomers looking to carry on the tradition.

"The great part of coaching is, it changes," coach Gary Williams said. "This year is dramatically different, because this year is the first year in a couple where we had five new players in a program, and some of them are going to have to play. We don't need all five to do that, but we need three."

Williams, 57 and in his 14th season at his alma mater, earned the benefits of his first national championship: He has a new contract that will pay him at least $1.3million a year, an athletic department source confirmed. Williams also is the main reason the Terps are ranked 12th to start the season and are expected to compete for the ACC title and challenge for their fourth consecutive 25-win season.

It won't be easy. The Terps lost their top four scorers from last season, making a third consecutive Final Four appearance a bit of a reach. They return one starter, point guard Steve Blake, and top three reserves: Drew Nicholas, Tahj Holden and Ryan Randle.

Though the Terps have four seasoned seniors who contributed during their championship run, the team's fate could be decided by five players who have never suited up for a Division I game. The recruiting class includes junior college All-American Jamar Smith, McDonald's All-American forward Travis Garrison and freshmen Nik Caner-Medley, John Gilchrist and Chris McCray.

"This is a brand-new team," said Holden, whose team had no freshmen and only one sophomore, Chris Wilcox, in its eight-man rotation last season. "It's different than having a team that's been together two or three years. Sometimes us older players are going to have to step back and just realize these guys are new."

Nicholas will step into Dixon's role as the scoring catalyst. Randle and Holden will take charge of the front line with Baxter and Wilcox in the NBA. The starting lineup will be completed by an unproven commodity because Byron Mouton also completed his eligibility. Caner-Medley and Smith will contend for the small forward slot, which could be occupied in the short term by seldom-used senior Calvin McCall.

Caner-Medley is a 6-foot-8, 220-pound athletic rebounder who plays with a reckless abandon similar to Mouton's. The left-hander averaged 36.5 points at his Maine high school. The 6-9, 239-pound Smith is an explosive athlete in the Wilcox mold but without as much leaping ability. The quick Smith can play both forward spots, but his biggest drawback is his inconsistency. He comes from Allegany (Md.) College, a pipeline that also produced Randle and former Maryland star Steve Francis.

The class includes two freshmen who already possess major college bodies, 6-8, 234-pound power forward Garrison and 6-3, 190-pound point guard Gilchrist.

Garrison, out of DeMatha High School, is the first McDonald's All-American on the Terps since Danny Miller transferred to Notre Dame after the 2000-01 season. Gilchrist, a flashy guard with a remarkable handle, will back up Blake and Nicholas and could see extended time in a three-guard lineup. The fourth freshman is 6-4, 166-pound McCray, a shooting guard and scoring specialist from Prince George's Fairmont Heights High School.

Williams built the class knowing he would lose three starters and that the early departure of Wilcox was an increasing possibility. Because of the turnover, Williams was able to sell recruits on the chance to come to Maryland and make an instant impact.

"Playing time had a lot to do with me coming here," said Garrison, who averaged 17.7 points and 13 rebounds for Morgan Wootten's final DeMatha team. "I wanted to play in college my first year and develop as a freshman."

The Terps hope to mesh the newcomers with veterans in increased roles. Blake has started 105 college games and is the program's all-time assist leader. Despite his pass-first mentality, he is the leading returning scorer at 8.0.

"I'm definitely going to assert myself and put myself in a position where I am going to be a huge part of this team," said Blake, who shot only 38 percent from the field last season but made 34 percent of his 3-point attempts.

Maryland potentially has one of the nation's best backcourts in Blake and Nicholas, who will make his second career start in Sunday's opener against Miami of Ohio. Nicholas celebrated his enhanced role by scoring 32 points in the Terps' first exhibition against the Harlem Globetrotters. The 6-foot-3 sharpshooter has waited patiently until his final season to become a featured player.

"I know my points and my shots are going to come within the flow of the offense," said Nicholas, who averaged 7.1 points and made 40 percent of his 3-point attempts last season. "Because I learned from the best. I learned from Juan Dixon."

The front line has questions. Holden played 18.5 minutes last season and Randle 9.6. Both were productive in limited roles and had shining moments in the NCAA tournament particularly Holden in the semifinal win over Kansas in which he scored 13 points while subbing for foul-troubled Baxter.

"They have to change their roles," Williams said. "They have to be able to handle the pressure of being starters or being players that have to play 32, 33 minutes a game. Before they didn't get that pressure because of the starters."

The Terps' season will hinge on the development of role players into stars and new players filling gaps. Maryland enters its immaculate new home filled with reminders of its championship. And although the defending champions have a vastly different look than the team that cut down the nets in Atlanta, these Terps relish their perch atop college basketball.

"It's a great thing," said Williams, who is 19 wins shy of 500 victories. "We have always shot for other guys I know how it feels looking at it from that side. Now we get hunted. You have to use that as a matter of pride in our team. We aren't going to let anybody come in here and take away from us what we have tried to establish."

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