- The Washington Times - Friday, November 14, 2008

The enormous national title banner still hangs inside Comcast Center. The gleaming crystal trophy remains the showcase of the still-young arena’s lobby.

It was only six years ago the Maryland basketball program reached the summit of the sport, finally breaking through after entrenching itself in the national rankings for much of the previous nine seasons.

No one can take away the accomplishments of 2002. But the expectations for a program not far removed from a championship? That’s different.

After landing in the NIT three seasons out of four, losing two starting forwards to graduation and enduring a spring and summer of tumult, the Terrapins occupy an unusual position vis-a-vis the last 15 years.

Suddenly, Gary Williams‘ team is almost universally viewed as a second-division bunch, concerns about an untested frontcourt chief among the arguments against a team that at one point looked like a sure bet for the NCAA tournament last winter but dropped four of its last five before Selection Sunday and wound up 19-15.

“It’s weird, but hopefully this year we’re going to use that as motivation and show the people out there we’re not that bad of a team,” senior forward Dave Neal said. “We’re going to have a better season than people think we are, and hopefully with that make it back to the NCAA tournament and bring back Maryland basketball to where it was four or five years ago.”

That might have been easier had events unfolded differently in the offseason.

First there was the saga of Tyree Evans, a junior-college guard with an arrest record and a history of hopping between schools. Evans signed with Maryland in April, then was released from his scholarship in May and eventually walked on at Kent State.

Then there was forward Gus Gilchrist’s decision to transfer to South Florida in June, hurting the Terps’ frontcourt depth. Eventually, Maryland brought in forwards Steve Goins and Jin Soo Kim, with Kim receiving NCAA clearance last week.

“It was kind of difficult and kind of stressful at the same time,” sophomore guard Adrian Bowie said. “You never knew what was going to happen next. I’m glad the season’s here, and we don’t have to worry about stuff like that.”

Instead, it’s just basketball - an element carrying plenty of uncertainty for the Terps.

It’s especially true of the frontcourt, where sophomores Jerome Burney, Braxton Dupree and Dino Gregory, as well as Kim and Neal, will all factor in. But the frequency even two of those guys will be on the floor at the same time in questionable.

Junior Landon Milbourne will probably receive plenty of time at the four, offering Maryland the opportunity to play what amounts to a four-guard set throughout the season.

Juniors Eric Hayes and Greivis Vasquez remain backcourt stalwarts, and Bowie, freshman Sean Mosley and sophomore Cliff Tucker all likely will emerge as vital cogs in a still-coalescing rotation.

Collectively, it is an athletic group littered with potential surrounding Vasquez, who could emerge as one of the ACC’s best players this season.

What it doesn’t have is size.

“I know we’re young and we’re kind of small and scrappy, and that’s going to be our way to play this year,” Neal said. “We’re going to be scrappy and play as hard as we can the whole entire game and never let down on teams. That’s going to be a real big thing.”

Scrappiness helps only so much, and the onus is on Williams to mold an untested bunch into a potential postseason participant in the coming months. If he succeeds, it could rank among his best coaching performances in 20 years at Maryland.

It would undoubtedly be a surprise to outsiders; Maryland was picked to finish seventh in the ACC’s preseason media poll.

“When they pick you low, it’s somebody’s opinion, and they must have a reason for their opinion,” Williams said. “But as a team, you never feel like at this time of year you’re not going to be good.”

The frontcourt will remain a concern for the foreseeable future, as will a nonconference schedule that elicited a few surprising stumbles a year ago. Maryland endured losses to Ohio and American last year, and those December setbacks arguably prevented the Terps from playing deep into March.

Milbourne said he can tell Williams hears the low expectations, then in turn mentions them over the course of practice. However, Milbourne and other players shrugged off the preseason predictions, preferring to dwell instead on what is to come.

It could be a telling season. Regardless of a favorable history - 15 straight seasons with a winning record, just as many consecutive years with at least seven ACC victories, a streak of 19-win seasons a dozen years long - the accomplishment of reaching the peak fades further into the past with each passing year.

No one anticipates a national title. Some cling to the belief an NCAA tournament appearance will arrive. But even as external outlooks diminish, a resolve remains to defy decreased expectations return the Terps to the right postseason tournament.

“We just have to prove that with this group of guys we have that we can make something special out of all the criticism and all the stuff they keep talking about,” Vasquez said. “I’m tired of making it to the NIT. I only made it one year, but it’s still irritating. … This team, we can make it special if we want to. Hopefully we keep it together and make something happen.”

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