- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 5, 2008

Gary Williams is accustomed to fine-tuning his team’s offense and maintaining a steady level of play at this time of the year.

Then again, this isn’t a typical season for the Maryland basketball coach.

Instead, he remains bogged down in divvying up minutes and attempting to crystallize a rotation that barely seems more set than it was nearly two months ago. And nowhere is that more apparent than in the frontcourt beyond starters James Gist and Bambale Osby.

There is playing time to be had for a junior prone to shoulder injuries and a posse of freshmen, and it is in plain sight for all of them. The ability of any of them to regularly earn it, however, is another matter.

“I hope so,” said Williams, whose Terps (8-6) play Charlotte (8-4) at Charlotte Bobcats Arena today.

It would make Williams’ job easier. Freshman Braxton Dupree is averaging 12.9 minutes, and though he is coming off the bench after a seven-game starting stint, he remains a viable complement to Osby.

But everything else remains in flux. Junior Dave Neal has played twice since returning from a left shoulder injury suffered Nov. 12 against Hampton, though he had only a six-minute stint in a victory over Savannah State on Wednesday and is probably not yet back in game shape.

The other possibilities are Jerome Burney, Dino Gregory or Shane Walker, none of whom have proven they can be every-night options.

At least yet, anyway.

“ACC [play] is coming up, and I want to be in that rotation, so I’m wondering ‘How can I get in there?’ ” Gregory said. “All three of us are wondering who’s going to get that spot in the rotation, that last spot.”

It has become something of a guessing game for Williams, who tries to use practice performance as the arbiter for determining who enters first but admits gut feelings are involved as well. Gregory has entered before both Walker and Burney five times, while Walker was the first to play in five games and Burney came in first the other four games.

The latest beneficiary of the instability is Walker, the energetic, reed-thin freshman who rarely played for much of December. Walker met with assistant Chuck Driesell about two weeks ago to figure out what he needed to do to play, and he has since logged 18 minutes the last two games.

“We were losing games and we weren’t play well and we weren’t playing hard, so we needed a change,” Walker said. “That’s one of the reason Coach started playing me, because we needed a change. That’s one of the reasons the rotation is still what it is.”

It could remain that way for some time. Neal will be helpful because of his utility on inbound plays, ability to occasionally hit a jump shot and understanding of Maryland’s system.

It will be the responsibility of Burney, Gregory and Walker to etch out niches for themselves as the rotation coalesces.

“You might have to spot players all year, depending on situations in game,” Williams said. “I don’t think that’s set, every game getting a consistent performance from those guys.”

But if it could, Maryland would be in far better shape entering conference play.

“If we can get somebody to give a consistent seven-and-three night, the rotation will be more concrete. But it’s just not there yet,” Osby said. “Honestly, it depends on which one wants to step up and get the minutes. Coach always tells them in practice the minutes are there to be had. Someone has to get them. It could be anybody.”

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