- The Washington Times - Friday, December 30, 2005

Center Will Bowers sat in a daze at his locker after Maryland’s victory Wednesday against Delaware State and tried to decipher yet another chapter in what has been a nightmare season individually.

At the other end of the room, forward James Gist prepared to leave after a solid eight-point, five-rebound performance. It was a typical night for a player many expected to make a leap from supporting player to star as a sophomore in the same way former Terrapins star Chris Wilcox did in 2001-02 when Maryland won the national championship.

With conference play resuming in a week, one of the Terps’ concerns is solidifying their frontcourt. It was a much-maligned unit last season and littered with question marks early this year. Ekene Ibekwe since has emerged as Maryland’s steadiest post player, and Travis Garrison’s commitment to physical play helped him become a mainstay inside.

As the 16th-ranked Terps (9-2) prepare to face VMI (5-5) today at Comcast Center, it is uncertain whether Bowers and Gist will be just as reliable.

“It’s up to guys to create the situation where I have to play them,” coach Gary Williams said. “Travis and Ekene with their experience as a senior and junior have a little edge experience-wise over Will and James. But for us to be good this year, Will and James have to contribute. We need to be able to rotate four guys in those power positions.”

Bowers’ miserable junior season reached its nadir Wednesday. He didn’t enter until 12:27 remained in the second half and picked up a foul eight seconds later. Bowers was whistled again with 10:31 left and departed for good, leaving a box score line littered with zeroes in every column but minutes and fouls.

It was Bowers’ third straight scoreless outing, and he has just as many fouls (23) as points this season. In the last six games, Bowers has four points and two rebounds.

“I just can’t really put my finger on it,” Bowers said. “I’m just basically playing terrible and I have no idea why.”

What’s most perplexing is the 7-foot-1 Bowers came into the season in the best shape of his career. Williams and teammates raved about how much Bowers improved after working out all summer and attending big man camps.

After more than a third of the season, the improvements have yet to translate into games, though Bowers is quick to say he is happy the Terps are winning.

“Bottom line is I have no one to blame but myself. I’ve been trying to go in and practice and play well, but it’s just I get into the game sometimes and …,” Bowers said before trailing off. “I don’t know how to explain it, but I know I have to play better. We’d be a lot better team if I was on the court playing well. It’s pretty much up to me and hopefully I can get it turned around.”

Added Williams: “You have to be confident. It’s almost catch-22. How do you get confident unless you play in games? You have to carry what you do in practice into the game. Once Will starts to do that he’ll be fine, and I still think he can do that this year. He’s big, and he presents problems for us in practice trying to guard him. There’s no reason why he can’t do that in a game.”

Gist’s situation isn’t quite so pronounced. He started the first five games before coming off the bench because of a stomach virus Nov.30 against Minnesota. A week later against Western Carolina, he didn’t play in the second half because of back spasms.

He has come off the bench since dealing with the ailments, but hasn’t proved the dynamo some thought he would be after a promising freshman year. His averages — 8.4 points and 4.1 rebounds — are somewhat influenced by his lower-than-anticipated playing time and the Terps’ offensive balance.

Still, there haven’t been many sightings of Gist’s extraordinary athletic ability of late. He had an impressive baseline drive for a dunk Wednesday, but it was one of only two shots Gist attempted as he continued what has become a quiet month for him.

“Coach has mentioned to us a bunch of things,” said Gist, who scored in double figures once in his last seven games. “It’s going to be a real important factor for everybody to be able step up this year. We have a deep bench and Coach wants to go all the way into it if he can.”

One of the overlooked aspects of the Terps’ national title run in 2002 was the ability to shuttle post players in and out without a significant drop-off in play. When Lonny Baxter and Wilcox sat down, Tahj Holden and Ryan Randle usually provided quality minutes — if not points — before the starters returned.

Maryland hasn’t enjoyed a frontcourt as deep and experienced since then, and it’s a potential weapon that would be especially valuable in the postseason. Few teams can deploy four quality post players, and a deeper rotation makes a team less vulnerable to foul trouble or fatigue.

“It’s really hard to rebound in a conference season without really more than two or three big guys because you get worn down once conference play starts,” Williams said. “If you keep that rotation going and keep fresh, then all the sudden come the end of February, you’re playing well and you still have a lot of energy left to play.”

That’s the ideal scenario for the Terps, who can envision a memorable March because of their veteran core and athleticism in the paint. Those dreams, though, will almost surely go unfulfilled if their frontcourt reserves do not emerge as more reliable options.

“They just have to be patient, just put a lot less pressure on themselves and just go out there and play ball,” Ibekwe said. “James was starting early in the season, so he’s not too far away. Will’s been doing a lot of improvement this year and with his added strength we’ll be a much better team. … If they could get it going, then we’d be real monstrous in the future.”

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