- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 1, 2006

They entered Maryland four autumns ago almost like “rock stars” as coach Gary Williams recalls, a group of freshmen who surely would pick up where Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter had left the basketball program after winning a national title in 2002.

There would be annual trips to the NCAA tournament. Perhaps a Final Four or two. Certainly, they would be remembered as the latest in a long line of decorated stars to pass through College Park.

If only it had worked out that way for Nik Caner-Medley, Travis Garrison, John Gilchrist and Chris McCray, a group that endured a perfect storm of hype and expectations. It was one of the most anticipated recruiting classes to land at Maryland, and it arrived on campus months after the Terrapins won the national championship.

Instead, only half of the star-crossed group — Caner-Medley and Garrison — will make tonight’s senior ceremonies. Sterling Ledbetter, a junior college transfer who is completing his second year at Maryland, also will be honored before the Terps (16-11, 6-8 ACC) play Miami (15-12, 7-7) in the final regular-season home game.

A victory would be vital to Maryland’s fading NCAA tournament hopes, a scenario Garrison couldn’t have envisioned when he began his career. Instead, he figured he would be a regular visitor to the tournament and make at least one trip to a Final Four.

“Yeah, honestly I did, especially with the class I came in with,” he said. “We were very talented and good. We were definitely looking forward to that and excited about it. Things didn’t go as planned, but this season is not over yet. We have a big game [tonight]. If we can get a win, it could change a lot of things, get us rolling and who knows from there.”

The travails of the class are well-chronicled. Caner-Medley, McCray and Garrison all were arrested during their careers (charges against Caner-Medley and McCray were dropped, while Garrison’s are still pending).

Gilchrist turned pro after a tumultuous junior season and is playing for Rishon Le-Zion in Israel. McCray was declared academically ineligible Jan. 23, and Williams said yesterday he wouldn’t be at tonight’s ceremony.

Meanwhile, the Terps’ on-court performance slid. The remnants of the national title team led Maryland to the regional semifinals in 2003, though the heralded class was key in the Terps’ run to the 2004 ACC tournament title. However, Maryland missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in a dozen years last season, and another NIT berth appears likely this month.

Actual performance aside, the program’s competitive standards haven’t changed much in the last four years.

“When I started the year playing with [Steve] Blake and those guys, they just came off a national championship, so that was a goal that was instilled in me when I came here because that was the expectations on the program,” Caner-Medley said. “It just seemed natural to believe that was what we were capable of doing.”

Williams declined to speculate yesterday how things might be different this season if Gilchrist and McCray were still in the depleted backcourt. He also defended the group’s accomplishments, even if they were early in their respective careers.

“I guess we raised the bar pretty hard if getting to the Sweet 16 and winning the ACC championship is not looked at as great years,” Williams said. “Something’s wrong if they’re not looked at as great years. Very few college basketball players have won an ACC championship and gotten to the Sweet 16 during their careers.”

The Terps still cling to the hope of making a late run, a push that must begin tonight. A .500 conference record is not out of reach, though it would require back-to-back victories for the first time in more than a month.

Barring a surge, tonight might not be the final time Caner-Medley and Garrison step onto the Comcast Center floor for a game. If it isn’t, it would mean the Terps are playing in the NIT for the second straight season, an almost unthinkable prospect when this graduating class joined the program.

“I definitely don’t want that to happen,” Garrison said. “I don’t want two senior nights.”

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