- The Washington Times - Monday, March 20, 2006

There wasn’t much Travis Garrison could say about the Maryland basketball team’s 87-84 loss to Manhattan in the first round of the NIT on Saturday.

Or another disappointing season, for that matter.

“It’s over now,” Garrison said softly. “You know what I mean?”

Garrison and two other departing seniors do. Still, four starters return next season to a program that only can hope it is facing a crossroads rather than moving further past one.

The slide from the program’s pinnacle of the 2002 national title continued, a four-year sequence that has taken the Terps from the Sweet 16 to the NCAA second round to the NIT semifinals and, finally, a first-round NIT exit.

“There’s more good teams out there now, so you have to do everything right to make sure you’re one of those good teams,” coach Gary Williams said. “If you slip a little bit, you’re not going to be one of those good teams. We have to do a better job of making sure we do everything right so when it comes time to play you earn the right to be a good team.”

The nucleus of next year’s team — holdover starters and seniors-to-be D.J. Strawberry, Ekene Ibekwe and Mike Jones — will be charged with reversing a slide that continued with a second consecutive missed NCAA tournament. It is a task Williams believes must begin in the next few weeks rather than in the fall.

Judging from Saturday’s loss, the sooner the better.

“He definitely wants a change,” Strawberry said. “He said he’s going to change this team. He’s going to [put in] a lot of work, and it’s going to take a lot of work from us. We have to change more than he has to change. He’s a great coach and he’s done it. We have to change and dedicate ourselves to basketball. We have to love the game even more.”

The Terps didn’t appear either to enjoy or respect the game much in their NIT debacle. Maryland committed 20 turnovers and eschewed perimeter defense in the stunning loss to the solid-but-not spectacular Jaspers, only the Terps’ third home nonconference setback in Williams’ 17 seasons.

Those problems, along with a penchant for sluggish play, haunted Maryland throughout the season despite being obvious concerns from almost the first game. Yet the same mistakes occurred game after game as the Terps slid to another 19-13 year.

“I think there’s some things some guys need to learn in terms of time management and preparing yourself in the best possible way,” senior Nik Caner-Medley said after his final game.

“I think next year, these guys are going to have a great year because hopefully they’ve learned a lot from the last couple years.”

Those lessons didn’t seem to seep in this year, and Williams identified strength as a trait that was too often missing all season. Strawberry agreed and indicated Maryland could spend more time than usual in the weight room this offseason.

“From the start of the game, we have to be the more physical, more aggressive, more active team on the floor,” Strawberry said. “We just have to get the mind-set where we’re the team that’s going to bring it to you. A lot of teams probably think that we’re soft. We have to change that.”

There at least will be some adjustments next year. Incoming point guard Eric Hayes could start from the early November opener, a move that would allow Strawberry to move back to the wing and give the Terps a true ballhandler after playing much of this season without one.

Three other freshmen will join Hayes to complete Maryland’s first substantial incoming class since next year’s seniors joined the program. Williams hopes the infusion of youthful exuberance will be “infectious” for the rest of the program.

Whether their effect will be more productive than the contagion of miscues the Terps endured this season is uncertain. Williams expressed optimism the Terps could be back in the postseason next year despite two undeniably frustrating seasons.

Regardless, some much-needed change seems certain to arrive in College Park.

“That’s what we need, a couple things to happen with our team and we’ll be fine,” Williams said. “The good thing is I know what it’s going to take. The tough part is to make it happen. It’s one thing to know it. As the coach, you can’t get out there and play. You try to get through to your players what it takes to make this happen, and you hope they’re receptive.”

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