- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 29, 2005

It was almost unthinkable that Nicholls State could endanger the Maryland basketball team Sunday. After all, how much damage could five guys playing for a program that hadn’t finished with an RPI better than 313 for four years inflict on a ranked team?

The scoreboard suggested otherwise late in the first half, when the Colonels closed within seven. The superior Terrapins eventually rolled to a 32-point victory, but the game was merely the latest in a series of slow starts for No.23 Maryland (4-1), which plays host to Minnesota (2-1) tonight in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

Sunday’s lethargy might have been the product of re-adjusting to being home after spending much of the week in Hawaii at the Maui Invitational. Yet for no apparent reason, the Terps have not been strong from the start of any game this season.

“I think it’s just a matter of being as excited as we are when we get down,” junior guard D.J. Strawberry said. “When we get down five, 10 points, we instantly just turn it on and come back so quick. But we have to have that same mentality from the beginning of the game.”

So far the early sluggishness has proved more maddening than costly. Maryland demolished Fairleigh Dickinson and Nicholls State at home despite so-so first halves and crushed Division II Chaminade after trailing at the break. Maryland also recovered from a sloppy start against Arkansas to put together an impressive second half.

Even in their only loss, the Terps actually led Gonzaga despite an underwhelming first half and were tied with less than 10 minutes left before falling by 12 points.

“I don’t think it’s a serious problem yet,” Maryland coach Gary Williams said. “I’d like to see us just jump on somebody, but each team develops a personality. … If you lose a game because of that, I’d be concerned. Our game with Gonzaga, they just got us in the second half.”

Though the habit of quiet starts might not be an immediate worry, it has the potential to become a problem as the Terps venture into ACC play in January. An early 10-point deficit against a Duke or a Wake Forest could take at least a half to erase — if a sustained rally occurs at all.

There is plenty of time to fix the problem, especially with seven of the next eight games at Comcast Center. One thing the Terps might be able to do is avoid using the first few minutes as a gauge to determine what sort of effort will be needed that night.

“We just see how hard the other team is going to play and see how hard we have to play, but I know that’s not going to be the case every time,” guard Chris McCray said. “We’re going to have to start doing a better job or Coach is going to start making changes because good teams aren’t going to let you get back in it. We were [one victory away from making] the [NCAA] tournament last year, so we definitely need to start games off better.”

Tonight’s Big Ten opponent probably will get the Terps’ attention, though Minnesota is struggling. The Golden Gophers lost star swingman Vincent Grier with a broken finger in their season opener, then dropped a 73-72 decision Monday to unheralded Gardner-Webb.

Nevertheless, the Gophers were an NCAA tournament team a year ago and feature an experienced backcourt, which could make them a candidate to make Maryland pay for a slow start.

“We really haven’t played for 40 minutes yet,” McCray said. “It always takes a timeout or for Coach to yell at us for us to really start playing. We know we’re going to need those timeouts later in the game, so as starters we have to know how to start the games off a little bit better.”

Note — Junior forward Ekene Ibekwe did not practice yesterday because of a stomach virus. Williams said Ibekwe spent much of the day receiving IVs at the campus health center.

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