- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Maryland basketball team’s wait is over.


The Terrapins return to conference play tonight when Miami visits Comcast Center, exactly a month removed from their only ACC game and after a five-game stretch of performances that swung from solid to sluggish, sometimes on the same night.

Tonight marks the beginning of a 15-game charge to the end of the regular season, a stretch that should determine whether Maryland (14-2, 0-1 ACC) can build on a strong start or repeat follies of recent seasons and stumble in the second half for a third straight year.

“We feel real positive,” senior forward Ekene Ibekwe said. “@ 14-2, ain’t no looking back now. We’ve done a good job in preseason, and I’m proud of my teammates of what we did. Now it starts. This is a real test right now.”

Maryland was in a similar situation a year ago when it was 11-2 and resumed ACC play at Miami. The Hurricanes took advantage of a nonexistent defense on the perimeter by making a dozen 3-pointers in an 84-70 win, precipitating an often trying two months for the Terps.

Such defense-optional approaches have been far less frequent this season. Maryland ranks first in the conference in field goal percentage defense (.351) and second in containing the 3-pointer (.284).

The Hurricanes (8-8, 1-1) should prove the first of many gauges for Maryland’s progress. Miami still utilizes a three-guard set, with potent Siena transfer Jack McClinton and sophomore Denis Clemente complementing senior point guard Anthony Harris.

“We’re better, but we’re going to get tested,” coach Gary Williams said. “You look at Virginia, Miami, Florida State, Carolina, there’s a lot of quickness out there in the backcourt this year. We’ll find out, but we’ve done a much better job at this point.”

Miami probably will stick with a perimeter-heavy approach out of necessity. Burly forward Anthony King is out for the year with a wrist injury suffered Dec. 3.

The Hurricanes have lost five of eight without King, and his absence has hurt in other ways. Miami finally was looking to become a more interior-minded team this season after the departures of guards Guillermo Diaz and Robert Hite. The Hurricanes have since been forced to go back to the outside for their offense in an unwanted midseason shift.

“It is a bit of an adjustment, and it’s difficult if you’re trying to do it midstream,” Miami coach Frank Haith said. “We had to readjust our thoughts and our offense a little bit and what we’re looking for. I think that’s why we’re seeing 8-8. Not only that, we’re seeing a very, very young team. … Now it’s just [that] we’re learning by baptism.”

The Terps only can be thankful they’re not in a similar situation. Maryland lost D.J. Strawberry (torn ACL) two years ago and Chris McCray (academic ineligibility) last January, depriving them of key members of their rotation in the middle of the season. Unsurprisingly, Maryland sputtered both times and landed in the NIT.

There have been no similar problems so far, and avoiding a similar loss could be just as important as improved defense and offensive efficiency in snapping a two-year NCAA tournament drought.

“You never know what to expect,” Williams said. “You want to go in healthy, and you want to go in with no surprises. We haven’t had that the last two years. One year we weren’t healthy; last year we had a surprise. Hopefully, we can just go through the whole ACC season with our team intact.”

Should Maryland thrive in conference play as much as it did in the first two months of the season — which featured victories over Michigan State and Illinois — the Terps know what would lie ahead.

“We’re definitely well on our way to what we want to do, and that’s to get into the [NCAA] tournament,” freshman guard Eric Hayes said.

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