- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 7, 2006

Will Bowers looked up from his seat last month to contemplate what really is the most significant question facing the Maryland men’s basketball program. It isn’t who will play point guard or who will provide offense inside. At least with those concerns, the Terrapins easily can identify potential solutions.

Instead, it is simply whether Maryland, which opens its season tonight at Comcast Center against Hampton, can return to the NCAA tournament after playing in the wrong postseason event the last two years.

“Anything less than an NCAA appearance would be a big disappointment,” Bowers said. “You kind of look at it in terms of the long run that if you don’t make the NCAA tournament again, you’re gonna be looked at as ‘those kids.’ When everybody looks back on Maryland basketball history, those are the kids that kind of screwed it up.”

An NCAA berth might suggest that back-to-back 19-13 seasons were simply hiccups and the ceaseless harping from fans a byproduct of unrealistic expectations established with consecutive Final Four appearances earlier in the decade.

But if not, it could solidify a slide from glory not seen in the sport in some time. No national champion has missed the tournament in three of the next five seasons since UNLV, which was hammered with probation after its 1990 title.

The last team to fall off so precipitously before the Runnin’ Rebels? Michigan State, which missed five straight 48-team fields once bereft of Magic Johnson’s presence.

The Terps missed the 65-team NCAAs the last two seasons, ending an 11-year stretch during which Maryland became such a tournament regular that most just assumed the Terps would find their way back every March.

“Coming to Maryland, I always thought the NCAA tournament was automatic, just knowing that Maryland was a powerhouse in the nation,” junior forward James Gist said. “Now it’s like we have to fight. It’s a fight every year.”

Particularly last season, during which Maryland encountered problems on and off the floor. Senior Chris McCray was declared academically ineligible in late January, and his departure coincided almost perfectly with a 2-7 slide.

The Terps also struggled all over the floor as they broke in D.J. Strawberry, a natural wing player, at point guard. There was inconsistency inside at both ends of the floor and lousy perimeter defense that coach Gary Williams described last month as the worst the Terps had played in his 17 seasons.

“Last year we just didn’t take anything,” Strawberry said. “We weren’t real strong, weren’t real aggressive. We weren’t a strong-minded team. We’d get down and put our heads down. … Nobody’s going to give you anything because you’re Maryland. They want to beat you because you’re Maryland, because you were up and now you’re down. They just want to keep you down.”

That harsh reminder — delivered frequently last winter — could be what helps the Terps get back up and morph into a NCAA tournament team. So might an infusion of newcomers, particularly in the restructured backcourt.

Strawberry is back on the wing, equipped with a better understanding of the game, while Mike Jones will start at shooting guard. Splitting time at the point will be freshmen Eric Hayes and Greivis Vasquez, although Williams cautioned yesterday it would be several games before he settles on a consistent rotation.

Vasquez, a native of Venezuela, plays with a brio not seen in the program in some time. Hayes isn’t quite so flashy, but he was still a fixture at Comcast last year and received a first-hand look at what he would face a year later.

“I watched every game,” Hayes said. “It was kind of frustrating watching it knowing you’d be there next year, but I also looked forward to coming in to change all of that.”

Both freshmen will be important, but so will a frontcourt one season removed from several inert performances. Gist and senior Ekene Ibekwe could emerge yet as consistent options in the paint, and Bowers’ improvement coupled with the presence of brawny junior college transfer Bambale Osby should help an interior defense that struggled at times.

Still, a priority will be generating offense inside, a staple of Maryland’s fine teams in the 1990s and earlier this decade. A parade of big men — Joe Smith, Obinna Ekezie, Lonny Baxter and others — ensured a presence near the basket absent in recent years.

“Any good team offensively has the ability to score inside,” Williams said. “Duke last year, everybody talked about [J.J.] Redick, but Redick’s job was a little easier with Shelden Williams inside because you had to worry about him in addition to Redick. We have to prove that we can because we haven’t been a consistent scoring team inside the last two years.”

Not much has gone right at meaningful times the last two seasons, a source of constant frustration for a program accustomed to success. A third straight missed tournament would suggest what now could be described as consecutive anomalies is really part of a greater, more unsettling trend.

The latter is not what the Terps’ seniors had in mind when they were wooed by the freshly minted national champions during the recruiting process, and Strawberry knows dwelling on past failures will be only a hindrance this season.

“There’s definitely a new mind-set around here, a new atmosphere,” Strawberry said. “Even the people that have been here the past couple years have a new attitude about this season. We want to give it everything we’ve got every night and go out, play hard, have fun and forget about what we did the past two years and think about how good we can be this season.”

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