- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 8, 2003

Only one starter returns. Nine of the top 10 players could be underclassmen. Yet Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams isn’t conceding that 2003-04 will be a rebuilding season.

“There’s no rebuilding,” he said during the Terrapins’ media day yesterday. “We’re here to win as many as we can. We think we have established ourselves as one of the top teams in the country, and we’re going to play like that this year.”

Maryland will open practice with Midnight Madness on Oct.17 before a sellout crowd at Comcast Center. Only two reserves remain from the 2002 national champions. The heavily veteran teams that reached two Final Fours are gone, leaving one of Williams’ more inexperienced teams in 15 seasons at Maryland.

But the talent is once again there to stretch the Terps’ NCAA tournament run to 11 years. Sophomore forward Nik Caner-Medley and sophomore guard John Gilchrist should start, along with senior center Jamar Smith. The Terps also may find starters among five incoming freshmen who seemingly fill needs underneath and outside. Forward Hassan Fofana is a 300-pound widebody. Guard Mike Jones was a legendary prep 3-point shooter. Forward Ekene Ibekwe is a shot blocker.

The question is how fast this young team will mature. Given that Maryland plays expected ranked teams Wisconsin, Gonzaga and Florida in the first month, another slow start could mirror last year’s 4-3 mark before the Terps rebounded to finish second in the ACC regular season.

“Anytime you have five freshmen coming in, there’s a lot of question marks,” Williams said. “No matter how good they were in high school, you don’t know how that’s going to translate into college [ball]. There is some pressure on these guys to be good right away. We expect them to be able to help us.”

Not that the ACC will be any easier considering that Duke could start the season ranked second while North Carolina and Wake Forest make the top 20. Maryland is ranked No.22 by one prominent preseason guide.

“We think we can play with them,” Williams said. “Every team in the league thinks they can play with each other. We can be a very tough team. It will be interesting to see when the confidence kicks in.”

Said guard Andre Collins: “We’re not going to be surprised. We know we can play at this level and are good enough to win games. It’s pretty much how quickly the freshmen adapt to things.”

The Terps entered the past two preseasons with roles largely defined, but this team could begin with a smaller lineup using three guards or keep the traditional frontcourt if the freshmen quickly mature.

“I can feel the anxiousness to get on the court,” Williams said. “I want to get all 13 guys out there to see what it looks like. Who can play where? Nothing’s set — it’s the best combination of players on the court.

“Teaching is going to be a priority. The [last two years] we had a pretty good rotation of our eight-man [lineup]. We had a pretty good idea of what was the best plays for individual guys. We still have to find those things out. It will be a different challenge.”

Players like the open competition. Collins wants to challenge Gilchrist as point guard Steve Blake’s successor. Both also could play shooting guard, where D.J. Strawberry, Chris McCray and Jones will compete. Travis Garrison and Caner-Medley will vie for one forward position, while Smith or Fofana could emerge at center.

Whoever emerges as a leader could have the edge because last season’s playmakers are gone. Smith is the lone senior and doesn’t mind shouldering the leadership.

“Every team I’ve played on I’ve had to be a leader so it comes naturally to me,” he said.

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