- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The pure athleticism Maryland’s Landon Milbourne brings to the court is impossible to miss. It is not difficult to envision the forward producing a YouTube-worthy dunk every time he plays.

It’s easy, almost tempting, to leave it at that. But then he’ll take a silky smooth shot from anywhere — the corner, the foul line, the paint — and it becomes clear his game is growing.

Milbourne’s textbook shooting stroke still isn’t fully appreciated, though his willingness to employ it more regularly has spurred the Terrapins (17-9, 7-4 ACC) to seven victories in the last nine games.

“I think Landon’s helped us in his ability to make shots,” said coach Gary Williams, whose team meets Virginia Tech (14-11, 5-6) tonight at Comcast Center. “He’s in that three position where you’re asked to do a lot of things. Play big, play small, rebound, handle the ball, shoot. All those things are part of that three spot.”

The 6-foot-7 Milbourne has shown improvement in all of those facets, but the potency of his shooting is perhaps his most significant development. He is 13-for-22 (59.1 percent) from beyond the 3-point line in conference play and is shooting 84.6 percent for the season at the foul line.

The work on the outside is especially significant for the former high school center who barely played last season. There was an understandable adjustment to be made, and Milbourne often seemed reluctant to assert himself in the first few months.

“It was coming along,” Milbourne said. “After a couple games in the beginning of the season, I wasn’t really hitting my shots. That’s just the time where you have to take yourself aside and notice you have to work a little bit harder.”

And so he did, arriving early to practice, staying late for additional shooting and receiving help from anyone he could find. Assistants Chuck Driesell and Joe Harrington and assistant recruiting coordinator Robert Ehsan all took turns helping Milbourne tap into previously unneeded perimeter talents.

The value of an additional willing shooter cannot be understated for the Terps, who rank 10th in the 12-team ACC in 3-pointers made. Earlier in the season, guards Eric Hayes and Greivis Vasquez were Maryland’s primary outside options. Pester them and keep a wary eye on forward James Gist, and the Terps lost a much-needed dimension.

Milbourne changes that dynamic. Still a slasher — just ask Florida State’s Uche Echefu, who Milbourne vaulted for an electric dunk late in the Terps’ victory Saturday — he opens up opportunities for teammates because he is a threat to exploit an open jumper.

Sometimes, he might not shoot enough. Although Milbourne is 6-for-7 from beyond the 3-point line in five games this month, he has had forgettable three- and four-point nights interspersed with his impressive game Saturday, when he scored a career-high 18.

“We need somebody outside me and James and Boom [Bambale Osby] to be scoring,” Vasquez said. “We need Landon to be that guy. I tell him, ‘You have to shoot the ball. You’ll hurt them if you shoot it.’ I’m not surprised with the way he plays because I’ve seen him play like that before. He just has to do it every day. If he does it every game, we’ll be fine.”

There’s little question an improved Milbourne, who is averaging 10.4 points in conference games, makes life easier for the Gists and Vasquezes. But it also signals the sophomore is maturing as a player, much like many in the program believed he would once he earned regular playing time.

Milbourne has made a 3-pointer in nine of the last 10 games to coincide with the Terps’ surge, providing more evidence that his willingness to hoist an open jumper is a distinct asset in Maryland’s attempt to sew up an NCAA tournament berth.

“It opens up a whole lot more,” Milbourne said. “I think people are starting to notice we have a lot of shooters on the team now. They’re going to go out on us, and I’m naturally a driver so when that opportunity comes, I’m just going to take that also.”

Today’s game

VIRGINIA TECH (14-11, 5-6 ACC) AT MARYLAND (17-9, 7-4)

When: 9 p.m.

Where: Comcast Center

TV/radio: Chs. 20, 54, FM-106.7, AM-1300, FM-105.7

Outlook: Maryland lead series 25-7 though Virginia Tech won 67-66 in Blacksburg on Jan. 12. Much has changed for the Terrapins since their loss to the Hokies dropped them to 0-2 in the ACC. Maryland has won seven of nine since and can further solidify its NCAA tournament prospects with a win. The Hokies, meanwhile, have lost three straight. The Terps expect to have freshman guard Cliff Tucker back after he missed Saturday’s win with the flu.

Patrick Stevens

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