- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 27, 2003

Ryan Randle isn't sure he can accommodate all the friends and family members who want to see him play against Michigan State in tomorrow's NCAA South Region semifinal in San Antonio. Maryland's senior center is from Duncanville, Texas, about a three-hour drive from the Alamodome. He says he needs a "whole truckload" of tickets.

Of greater certainty, and greater importance to the Terrapins' defense of their national championship, is Randle's state of mind. "It's changed dramatically," he said.

There was some question whether that would happen as Maryland began the NCAA tournament amid a whole truckload of doubts, at least by outsiders. In successive games, the Terps lost their regular-season finale to Virginia and were bounced from the ACC tournament by North Carolina. Not coincidentally, Randle played poorly, especially against the Tar Heels (one point, two rebounds and four fouls in 13 minutes).

"If he doesn't play well," Maryland coach Gary Williams said, "we've got a pretty good chance to lose."

In other words, as goes Randle, so go the Terps.

"That's what some people say," Randle said, "so I just try to abide by it. If I get out there and just play, everybody [else] gets out there and just plays."

Randle reportedly was distracted by personal problems involving a girlfriend. But Williams noticed a change in him during practice after the NCAA bids came out, and everybody noticed a change after Randle had a pair of big games as the Terps advanced to the Sweet 16.

"I just put everything behind me and got out there and started to play," said Randle, who had 15 points and 16 rebounds against UNC Wilmington and 17 points (making eight of 12 shots from the floor) in 19 minutes against Xavier.

"If he's still having those problems, let him keep having those problems," senior guard Drew Nicholas said, laughing. "No, I mean, Ryan's fine. He just went through some times in his life that everybody does. And it's hard, because we're in the spotlight and those kinds of things get blown up and all. Ryan's playing great for us, and I'm sure he's going to continue to do so."

Said Williams: "He's had periods where he didn't have those numbers, but he keeps coming back."

Last year, his first at Maryland after transferring from Allegany Community College in Cumberland, Md., Randle backed up Lonny Baxter and Chris Wilcox in the frontcourt. He averaged about 10 minutes a game and played well at times, especially down the stretch.

Randle took on a much larger role this season. With Baxter and Wilcox gone, he and senior Tahj Holden had to carry most of the load inside. Randle indicated early on he was up to it by going for 20 points and 16 rebounds in 39 minutes during an overtime loss to Indiana in December.

Replacing All-American guard and spiritual leader Juan Dixon was difficult enough for the Terps. But in some ways, what the 6-foot-9 Randle was facing was even more of a challenge.

"Size is tough to come by in college basketball right now," Williams said. "Every team is basically playing three guards."

Randle, nicknamed "Sleepy" for his droopy eyes and often laconic demeanor, prepared by working out hard under the direction of strength coach Kurt Schultz, now with the Cincinnati Bengals. Randle said he lost about 30 pounds. And not only is Randle, a recovering fast-food junkie, noticeably slimmer, he is stronger.

"It's had a tremendous effect," said Randle, who is averaging 13 points and a team-high seven rebounds. "I can run up and down the court. I feel like I'm quicker. Everything just feels so good."

It helped that Baxter lost weight and improved his strength last season, setting an example for Randle. "You can't get a better role model to go against [in practice] than Lonny," Williams said.

"When Lonny left, he told me to just keep playing like I've been playing since I got here," Randle said. "I said, 'All right, that's what I'm gonna do.' He said maybe it's your dream come true. I can see my dreams coming true right now."

The dreams are even sweeter considering the obstacles Randle had to overcome. He failed to graduate from Duncanville High School because he did poorly on a standardized test but was able to earn his degree while attending Allegany. It hasn't been easy, but Randle said he is on track to graduate this summer with a degree in family studies.

"It's wonderful," he said. "I've got high standards in the classroom. If I don't understand something, I ask for help."

With his hopes of playing in Division I on hold after high school (he didn't even take the SAT), Randle was steered to Allegany by Texas coach Rick Barnes, who recruited two of Randle's prep teammates, Chris Owens and Brian Boddicker; senior guard Terrell Ross, who is from Laurel, was Randle's roommate at Allegany.

Maryland, seeded sixth in the South, will play Texas on Sunday if both win. Barnes' top-seeded Longhorns meet Connecticut in tomorrow's other semifinal.

Barnes is a longtime friend of Allegany coach Bob Kirk, who in 32 years has built one of the top junior college programs in the country, establishing a pipeline that has sent Steve Francis and current Terp Jamar Smith, among others, to Maryland along with Randle.

Kirk said when Randle arrived at Allegany, he showed unusual perimeter skills for a big man.

"I needed him to play inside for us, but he could pass the ball and he sees the court really well," said Kirk.

"I saw he could do a lot of things, at 6-9, that Steve Francis did for us. Good passer, good perimeter player, unselfish. He doesn't have the big ego. He has a nose for the ball, and when he wanted a rebound, he'd go get it."

Randle's disposition was that of a "big old collie dog," Kirk said. Asked if Randle sometimes is "too nice" on the court, Kirk replied, "I think at times he has been. But what I like about Ryan is that he didn't ever mind getting on the floor to get the ball." 

Williams says he wishes he could have had Randle for four years instead of two,

"He's really like a sophomore, experience-wise," Williams said. But he couldn't be happier with Randle's recent performances, considering what's at stake.

"When you look at what he's done in the first two games of the NCAA tournament, it's probably as good as any inside player in the country," Williams said.

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