- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 20, 2003

Gary Williams doesn’t want to hear about rebuilding. He doesn’t want to hear about lowered expectations for a Maryland team that includes nine underclassmen.

There is no grace period for young teams in the ACC — particularly in an ACC hungry for revenge on a Maryland program that has gone 26-6 against conference foes the past two seasons.

“You don’t get any sympathy from your opponents,” Williams said. “They don’t say, ‘We’ll take it easy on you this year because you have a lot of freshmen.’ I think there’s a lot of teams waiting for us this year to kick our butts. We’ll see what happens.”

With only one returning starter and one senior, the Terrapins team that opens the season tomorrow night against American seems particularly young compared to its two experienced predecessors.

Five freshmen figure to make an impact before they depart Maryland, but will they develop quickly enough to avoid a rough internship? Four sophomores must get through a season when nothing was expected of them to become leaders. Those nine must carry the team because senior center Jamar Smith is the only upperclassman who will play extensively.

“You can be a leader as a sophomore,” Williams said. “Sophomores were here last year. That makes them veterans.”

Chief among those is point guard John Gilchrist, who is expected to be the team’s leader on the floor. If Maryland is to overcome its immaturity, the Terps need their modestly experienced players to take charge.

“John Gilchrist could be [a leader] because of the position, but I think you have to earn that with the players,” Williams said. “Just because he’s the next guy to play point guard doesn’t mean it will happen.”

What usually happens is that Williams flourishes as an underdog.

Freshman center Joe Smith arrived in 1993 after the Terps had suffered two straight losing seasons and a five-year NCAA tournament drought. It looked like another rebuilding year with five underclassmen starters, but the Terps reached the Sweet 16 instead.

Maryland hasn’t missed the NCAA tournament since, winning one national championship and reaching two Final Fours and seven Sweet 16s.

Williams hasn’t changed since he won that national title in 2002. He still always wants to prove real or imaginary naysayers wrong. It won’t be long before skeptics become supporters even in the competitive ACC, where the Terps will be hard-pressed to finish third this season.

“We’re an unknown quantity,” Williams said. “We expect to win this year. I don’t say we have to win 20 games. We just try to win every game. It’s easier that way.”

The Terps face three ranked opponents in their first seven games, a difficult stretch that could lead to a repeat of last year’s 4-3 start.

Many marquee programs whistle through non-conference schedules undefeated by facing outmatched smaller schools. However, Williams prefers to plot enough challenges between blowout victories to give newcomers a taste of what the ACC schedule will be like.

It worked in 1999, when Maryland lost to Kentucky 61-58 in the Preseason NIT at Madison Square Garden but won a rematch 17 days later 72-66. It was the first major victory for freshmen guards Steve Blake and Drew Nicholas.

“We developed a great deal of confidence in ourselves that year,” Williams said. “It looked like we were going to lose by 50 [in the first game], and we had that thing down where Juan Dixon had a shot in the corner at the end. That game we lost made us know we could play with anybody. That gave us the confidence to go. Hopefully, we can get a win like that this year.”

But it’s not easy for wide-eyed newcomers to stare down the Cameron Crazies and Dean Dome fanatics. It might be an advantage for center Hassan Fofana that he has never heard of Tobacco Road. Guard D.J. Strawberry almost certainly will be razzed by opposing fans because of his father, former major league baseball player Darryl Strawberry.

“You start to appreciate the rivalries more,” sophomore forward Nik Caner-Medley said. “As a freshman, it is like being on tour, and it’s cool to see this gym. Now we know how to prepare.”

Preparation has often meant intense, three-hour practices under Williams.

“The freshmen know how to deal with constructive criticism,” Caner-Medley said. “If you win a national championship and go to Final Fours and go to 10 straight tournaments, what are you going to say [in rebuttal]?”

The Terps know they’re deep. Ten players could be used regularly, but the lineup might change throughout the season as freshmen mature.

“The pressure this year is trying to figure out who’s our best eight or nine players,” Williams said. “It’s an unknown. One of the strengths will be the ability to use our bench. Last year our strength was probably our experience.”

Only one thing is certain for Maryland this season: It will be interesting.

“It’s not hard to really get the chemistry when everyone’s running,” Gilchrist said. “Just fill the lanes and let’s go. It’s simply basketball. It’s going to be fun. Everybody is going to catch the fever early.”


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