- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 22, 2005

Coming off a week of final exams, the Maryland basketball team faces an important test in the next two weeks — continuing to improve as it hurtles toward the resumption of conference play early next month.

The No. 16 Terrapins (7-2) return from an extended break tonight against American (3-6). It is Maryland’s first game since a 73-71 victory on Dec. 11 against then-No. 6 Boston College, a win that provided tangible proof the Terps could compete with some of the nation’s top teams.

Maryland does not have the opportunity to enjoy a victory of that ilk until returning to ACC play early next month. The four teams that visit Comcast Center in the next two weeks — American, Delaware State, VMI and Texas A&M-Corpus; Christi — hardly conjure images of college basketball royalty, and victories over each are all but expected for a team ranked all season.

There is, however, plenty the Terps would like to improve in the next four games. There’s defense, which coaches are rarely satisfied with at this time of the season. Maryland also has started off several games sluggishly, a trait that could return even though the Terps shook it off against Boston College.

And then there’s the offense’s ability to handle pressure defense, a flaw exposed in a Dec. 5 loss to George Washington and one opponents will likely try to exploit as the season unfolds.

“I was very pleased beating BC, but that seems like it was a couple months ago now,” coach Gary Williams said. “You want to continue to improve. Once you get to a certain point in your schedule, you get to where you’re just preparing for that next game, basically. That’s not the time of year you can get better. This is a time where we’ve had practices, [and] even though it’s during exams, you expect to get better.”

Williams ran his team through several shorter-than-usual practices during the Terps’ exam period, which ended Wednesday. Like most teams at this time of year, Maryland didn’t always have a full complement of players because of the exam schedule.

With the tests out of the way, the Terps can devote their attention to basketball until classes resume again Jan. 25. Yet it will be curious to see if the 12 days between games — the longest in-season break for Maryland since 1999 — will affect the Terps tonight.

“We’ve been having a lot of practices, so everything should be tight and ready to go for [tonight’s] game, so there should be no rust at all,” senior forward Travis Garrison said. “If anything, we should be better than ever because we had so much time to work on everything.”

American, returning from a long break of its own, has won three straight since a season-opening six-game skid that included an ugly 75-35 loss Dec. 5 to George Mason in the BB&T; Classic.

The Eagles will also have 6-foot-11 center Paulius Joneliunas for the first time tonight. The Lithuanian transferred from South Carolina in the middle of last season and became eligible after the fall semester ended.

American could provide some fits for the Terps, as it did last season, when it trailed by two at halftime in an 82-61 Maryland victory. Williams has reminded the Terps of that scare, just in case the prospect of improvement isn’t enough to keep Maryland concerned about its holiday homestand.

“I think right now we’re at a real good pace, but we really need to pick it up this game,” junior Ekene Ibekwe said. “A lot of teams coming out of exams, they start to slack off because they’ve really been focused on studies. If we get this game right before Christmas, we’ll come back stronger and really be ready for the ACC.”

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