- The Washington Times - Friday, November 21, 2003

The Maryland basketball team began last season basking in the afterglow of its first national championship. The Terrapins entered the sparkling new Comcast Center with much fanfare as the storied program unfurled the title banner.

One season later, the Terps begin with all the principal players from that championship team gone. Maryland is unranked and stocked with a group of freshmen and sophomores. The Terps have been to two Final Fours in the past three years and have been a decade-long staple in the NCAA tournament, but tonight they will be an unknown commodity when they play American at Comcast Center.

“It’s really different than how it’s been probably the last 10 years,” said Maryland coach Gary Williams, who lost four starting seniors and the top four scorers off last season’s 21-10 team that reached the Sweet 16. “Certain games you knew you were going to win. That’s not true this year. Nobody can sit back and say, ‘Maryland is this good.’ They can’t put a measure on us this year. Because they don’t know our players until we show what we can do.”

The Terps are coming off an exhibition loss to Roanoke of the National Basketball Developmental League. Sophomore James Gilchrist has taken over the role of emotional leader as well as running the team at point guard.

Williams said to expect four other second-year players to join Gilchrist in the starting lineup: sophomores Chris McCray, Nik Caner-Medley and Travis Garrison and senior Jamar Smith, who transferred from junior college before last season.

The Terps are heavily favored against American, the Northwest Washington school where Williams began his career as a college coach. Williams, who will start his 15th season at his alma mater, will be looking down the sideline at a familiar foe in Jeff Jones, a former Virginia star and coach who begins his fourth season at AU.

“We will probably joke before and after the game,” Jones said. “It is probably fun playing them in this situation. I wouldn’t say that if we were evenly matched. It’s always good seeing Gary, and obviously with a coach like Gary, it will be a challenge.”

The Eagles come in as a mid-major program expected to be fodder for a national program. It is a “guarantee game,” meaning AU is expected to come to Comcast and lose and Maryland does not owe the Eagles a visit. In return, AU will receive a sizeable check — likely around $40,000 — to temper a likely loss.

“Obviously, we will get our check,” said Jones, whose AU team lost to the Terps 83-53 at Cole Field House two years ago. “That’s important for a program at our level. I want our guys to get the experience and hopefully enjoy the atmosphere, not be intimidated and not worry about the final score. Two years ago, the game was over in the first five minutes. I just hope we are hanging around at the end, and then anything can happen. All the pressure would be on Maryland.”

Jones believes this should be the best team he has had at AU, although he lost the top two scorers from last season’s 16-14 team. Senior point guard Andres Rodriguez is back and has been the team’s top all-around player.

Junior Raimondas Pestrauskas, at 6-foot-7, and 6-5 junior Jernavis Draughn provide an experienced — if undersized by major college standards — inside game. Freshman shooting guard Andre Ingram had a strong preseason and will be counted on to pick up some of the lost offense.

The Terps have a major size advantage with four players at least 6-9, including 7-1 freshman Will Bowers. Maryland got away from its inside attack while being taken out of sync in Tuesday’s exhibition loss. Tonight the Terps plan to exploit the power play.

“We have size, and we want we want to take advantage of our size and just pound it down low and play good basketball,” Gilchrist said. “When you pound down low and you punish them a little bit, [defenders] have a tendency to come down and help. Once they kick it out, it’s just [open jumpers] from the perimeter.”

Gilchrist doesn’t seem to be feeling the pressure of his new role or of being the leader of a team filled with uncertainty.

“I am ready to start playing games and winning games that will really count towards our record,” the 6-3, 199-pounder said. “I feel we have enough talent on this team to really go far this year.”

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