Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The Maryland basketball team congregated for the NCAA tournament selection show in March, an annual rite the Terrapins enjoyed the 11 previous years.

This time, however, Maryland wasn’t prepared for any good news. It had lost its final four games, and the Terps knew their NCAA streak was over. In three years, Maryland had gone from national champion to NIT fodder.

“It was all on our shoulders,” guard Chris McCray said recently. “We had to win one or two games to get in, and we didn’t get the job done. It wasn’t the selection committee’s fault that we didn’t get in. It was all our fault.”

Eight months later, that thought hasn’t entirely vanished. It’s especially true for the three seniors — McCray and forwards Travis Garrison and Nik Caner-Medley — who were part of one the most heralded recruiting classes in program history and have one final season to live up to the unreasonable expectations created by the success of their predecessors.

It hasn’t happened yet, even though the group did help Maryland win the ACC tournament in 2004. Fair or not, the three (along with John Gilchrist, who turned pro after last year) are probably best known for being part of the Maryland team that didn’t play in the right postseason tournament for the first time in more than a decade.

The last opportunity for Caner-Medley, Garrison and McCray to redefine their legacy begins Friday, when the No.24 Terps play host to Fairleigh Dickinson in their season opener.

“It’s not their fault what we went through last year,” coach Gary Williams said. “That was our team. We still won 19. We averaged 23 wins a year for [11 years]. We’d like to get back to that. Each year, you create your own identity for your team with who you are, and that’s what we’re trying to do here.”

While a team is sculpted differently every year, an individual player is shaped by the full experience of his career. That is certainly the case with these three seniors, who came to College Park mere months after beloved seniors Lonny Baxter and Juan Dixon celebrated Maryland’s 2002 national title game victory over Indiana at the Georgia Dome. The arrival of a hyped five-man class seemed to ensure an NCAA championship would remain the program’s benchmark for success.

There was Gilchrist, the dynamic and loquacious heir apparent to point guard Steve Blake, and Caner-Medley, the swingman who dominated prep basketball in Maine.

There were the two local guys — McCray, an outside threat who likely would follow Dixon and Drew Nicholas at shooting guard, and Garrison, a McDonald’s All-American who was joining a program that reached the sport’s summit without one. Throw in junior college center Jamar Smith and thoughts of another title in the future didn’t seem so crazy.

Yet those expectations proved steep. Holdovers Blake and Nicholas helped Maryland reach the Sweet 16 the next season, but the Terps struggled a bit after they departed. Only a three-day run at the ACC tournament — fueled by Gilchrist’s dominance as an offensive maestro — ensured Maryland would reach the NCAAs in 2004.

“They still got that publicity, and here come our guys and everybody just assumes, ‘Well yeah, they’re just freshmen, but they’re the next basketball players,’” Williams said. “You have to earn it on your own. I think they learned a lot last year, more so than they did their freshman and sophomore years.”

Perhaps that was because the class had little choice but to grow up since no seniors played consistently vital minutes. The group mixed fleeting moments of brilliance — such as two victories over Duke — with quite a bit of mediocrity. McCray emerged as a complete player, while Caner-Medley was generally effective but also inconsistent.

Meanwhile, Gilchrist befuddled teammates with his unpredictability. Some nights he would call out a play and then repeatedly try to take his defender one-on-one; on others he played a passive role in the offense and didn’t take shots. He feuded with Williams, didn’t play in the NIT because of injury, declared for the NBA Draft and went unselected before signing with an Israeli team.

Gilchrist’s decision to depart leaves Maryland without its dominant personality from the last two seasons, but it could help the program push past last year’s turmoil. It also leaves Caner-Medley, Garrison and McCray as the players Williams will rely on to take ownership of the Terps’ fate.

“If we can do a lot of good things this year and add that to our resume, then maybe we can look back and say we’ve met our expectations,” Caner-Medley said. “Right now we’re on track. Last year was a step back, but it was one year out of three years if you look at the whole picture, and if you want to look at the whole picture, you can’t necessarily focus on going to the NIT one year.”

The senior class — which also includes point guard Sterling Ledbetter, who joined the program last season — will need help to return to the NCAA tournament. Junior D.J. Strawberry, who is back from a torn ACL in his right knee, will play plenty at point guard and could remain on the floor when Ledbetter or junior college transfer Parrish Brown enters to run the offense. Strawberry has played some point guard in college, but he could be prone to some sloppy days early in the season.

Meanwhile, Garrison is the veteran in a frontcourt deep on players and short on proven consistency. He, along with juniors Will Bowers and Ekene Ibekwe, will need to improve, but 6-foot-8 sophomore James Gist has the greatest potential to develop into Maryland’s finest post presence since Baxter and Chris Wilcox patrolled the middle four seasons ago.

McCray and Caner-Medley will be among Maryland’s top scoring options, though junior Mike Jones appears ready for a greater role than just a scorer off the bench. Still, it is uncertain who will emerge as the face of the team — if anyone does at all.

“I don’t think we have that star on our team,” McCray said. “Everybody’s coming in and trying to write their own chapter or their own page. Nobody’s basically proven themselves.”

It is an approach that suits the Terps, the seniors in particular. Maryland has a deep roster littered with veterans, which only should help after several ACC teams lost critical components. It also has a strong schedule, with next week’s trip to Maui to face Gonzaga (and possibly two more ranked opponents) serving as a barometer for a team that could use an early season infusion of confidence.

And then there’s that matter of legacy, which the Terps’ veterans hope will be settled well after Selection Sunday this season.

“I think the sky’s the limit for us,” Garrison said. “We have experience. We have a lot of juniors and seniors. I think it’s going to be the year for us.”

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