- The Washington Times - Friday, October 13, 2006

Maryland’s basketball team began last season with questions at point guard as D.J. Strawberry came off an injury and shifted to an unfamiliar position.

A year later, uncertainty remains for a team that has missed the NCAA tournament the last two seasons.

The Terrapins, who will start practice tonight with an intrasquad scrimmage at Comcast Center, could rely on freshmen Eric Hayes and Greivis Vasquez to run the offense throughout the season. Coach Gary Williams shrugged off questions about a starter yesterday, instead pointing to the more than three weeks of practice before the Nov. 7 season opener against Hampton.

“It wouldn’t bother me to play a freshman at the point guard position,” said Williams, who hinted at the possibility of some four-guard sets this season.

“There’s guys with experience that have played in games there. It will be a battle, but it will be a good battle. You’re allowed to play more than one point guard at a time, so that might happen.”

If Hayes or Vasquez earns the job, it will mark the first time Maryland started a freshman point guard since 1999-2000. That was when Steve Blake arrived on campus and helped the Terps to a surprising 25-10 season.

The next two years, he helped the Terps reach two Final Fours, win a national title and set the school’s assists mark by the end of his junior year.

That’s a high benchmark for a pair who possess different styles but can both help Maryland immediately. The 6-foot-3 Hayes was a four-year starter at Potomac High School in Dumfries, Va., and fans were already clamoring for his arrival as the Terps struggled at times last season.

While Maryland hasn’t started a freshman at the point in seven years, several other ACC schools have employed one in that span. Hayes is certain he can join a list that includes Jason Williams, Raymond Felton, Chris Paul and Jarrett Jack, but he knows it isn’t guaranteed.

“I’m still working to earn that spot,” Hayes said. “I haven’t been given anything yet. I think I’m pretty prepared to do that.”

Vasquez, a 6-foot-5 combo guard, believes he’s ready as well. The Venezuelan already has impressed teammates with his emotional approach to the game and his ballhandling ability, both of which will be welcome additions for a team that went 19-13 a year ago and lost in the first round of the NIT.

“I really love to compete, and that’s going to make our team better,” Vasquez said. “D.J. now has to compete against me. I have to compete against Eric Hayes. There’s a lot of competition, and that’s how you get better. Because of that, we’re going to look way better than last year.”

Strawberry was the starter a season ago, and he knows how difficult it is for a player unfamiliar to playing point guard at the college level to acclimate themselves to the position.

Yet as tough as it could be, Strawberry thinks the Terps could face a smoother road with Hayes and Vasquez likely to play considerable minutes this year.

“They’ve played point guard their whole life, they know the game, they know what to do, they know how to slow down the tempo,” said Strawberry, who could play some at point guard again this year. “That’s things I didn’t know coming into last year. Just with their point guard experience and my point guard experience in the ACC, I think we’ll be fine.”

Of course, no one will know for certain until the season begins next month. If Hayes or Vasquez emerges as a capable point guard, it would likely galvanize a team that struggled with turnovers throughout last season. Williams, though, is willing to exercise patience with his two heralded recruits as they adapt to the college game.

“A guy like Steve Blake always had that confidence that he could get it done,” Williams said. “That’s what you find out in practice, whether you have that in you. There’s nothing wrong if it takes you a while to get to that point.”

Note — Williams said freshman forward Jerome Burney (fractured bone in his left foot) would probably not start practicing for at least three weeks.

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