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How Dangerous is a Cornered Turtle?

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Just how dangerous is a
cornered turtle? The Blue Devils will get an idea this as they
travel to College Park to face off against a Maryland team that finds
themselves with their backs against the wall after a 1-2 start in the
ACC season. The good news for the Terrapins is that both of those
losses were on the road, something that’s not uncommon in the
ACC. But each road loss puts a greater emphasis on holding serve on
your home floor, which means that Wednesday night’s game will
be even more important than it usually is. The Terps can’t
afford to lose a home game, they don’t want to have to dig
themselves out of a 1-3 hole in the league, and they really don’t
want to lose to Duke.

The fact that the Terps
have struggled a little in the early part of this season shouldn’t
come as much of a surprise. Maryland lost 4 starters off from last
year’s 21-10 club. Gone are Drew Nicholas, Ryan Randle, Steve
Blake, and Tahj Holden, a quartet that accounted for 64% of the
scoring, 48% of the rebounding, and 67% of the assists. That’s
a lot to replace. What makes that task more difficult for coach Gary
Williams is that the previous year the team lost 4 starters off their
national championship squad. With the losses of Juan Dixon, Lonny
Baxter, Chris Wilcox and Byron Mouton, the Terps had to replace 69%
of their scoring, 60% of their rebounding, and 36% of their assists.

As can be expected,
losing 8 starters in 2 years – and in each year those starters
were the top 4 scorers for the team – leaves Maryland with a
young and inexperienced team. This group of Terps had combined for
just 24 starts coming into the season. What’s more, the
blueprint for success that Gary Williams has followed at Maryland has
always been to find underrated recruits and give them coaching and
time to develop. It worked with Lonny Baxter and Juan Dixon as
seniors leading the team to the national championship after entering
College Park nearly unrecruited by any other ACC school. This season
Williams doesn’t have the luxury of slowly developing players.
The team’s regular rotation is almost entirely comprised of
freshman and sophomores, the lone exception being a senior who is a
junior college transfer. None of the players who will see the court
for Maryland on Wednesday will have been in the program for more than
2 years.

To be fair, the quality
of recruits that are now coming to Maryland are more heralded than in
previous seasons, but they still lack the experience of the players
stepping into the starting lineup in previous years. The results
have been predictably unpredictable. Maryland has a plethora of
talented players, but their youth and lack of time with Williams’
system combine for a team that can beat Florida on the road and UNC
at home while losing to Florida State and West Virginia.


One of the reasons the
Terrapins were able to successfully transition from their national
championship team to last year’s squad was because of the
similarities between Lonny Baxter and Ryan Randle. Both players were
strong but somewhat undersized in the pivot (more in Baxter’s
case than in Randle’s) who understood how to use Williams’
flex offense to get higher percentage shots in close to the basket.
This year that transition is not as smooth, as the Terps lack a true
back to the basket, bruising center.

What they do have is
Jamar Smith, a 6-9 senior who came to Maryland via Allegany Community
College, the same path taken by former Terrapins Randle and Steve
Francis. At 239 lbs, Smith is a different type of player than his
predecessors in the Maryland pivot. He relies much more on his
quickness than strength and will score a bunch of points off from
offensive rebounds. Smith is more comfortable facing the basket and
the Maryland coaching staff is more comfortable if he’s facing
the basket from within 4 feet since anything beyond that is outside
of his range. You could watch the entire Lord of the Rings film
trilogy in the time it would take Smith and Brendan Haywood to
complete a game of H-O-R-S-E.

Smith leads the league
in rebounding although to be fair his own shooting contributes to an
inordinate number of offensive rebounding opportunities. Defensively
he’s solid, but not exceptional. He managed to give up a
double-double to Georgia Tech’s Luke Schenscher, a feat not
easily accomplished.

He’s joined in
the frontcourt by one of Maryland’s exciting freshman, the 6-9,
“hey, which way is the weight room” 210 lbs. Ekene
Ibekwe. After starting the season slowly, the freshman has seen more
playing time in the last 7 games. He’s a tremendous shot
blocker with long arms and good leaping ability who is a better
outside shooter than what he’s shown thus far this season.

Nick Caner-Medley was
thought by many to be penciled in as the team’s power forward
at the start of the season, but Ibekwe’s improvement has
allowed Williams to move the 6-8, 220 lbs. Caner-Medley to the small
forward spot, giving the team more size along the frontcourt.
Normally when you hear the words “great athlete” you
don’t immediately think of the state of Maine and if you do you
are probably involved in a discussion about hockey. But Caner-Medley
is just that – a great athlete from Maine who just happens to
play basketball. Caner-Medley strongly favors his left hand - if
he’s attacking the basket, more often than not he’ll be
driving to his left. He’s a solid outside shooter, a good
defender, and the kind of player that opposing fans will hate at the
end of his four years at Maryland.

Pushing for playing
time in the frontcourt is former McDonald’s All-American Travis
Garrison. The McD’s label has been a burden for the 6-9
sophomore who saw limited action last year and has been bumped from
the starting lineup this year. Garrison likes to play a mid-range
game using a nice touch out to about 18 feet and he can step out and
hit the long-range shot on occasion. The Terps would like to get
more out of him on the low blocks, but Garrison hasn’t always
been inclined to use his size inside.

Rounding out the
frontcourt depth is nearly 14 feet worth of freshman. You may feel
compelled to adjust the color on your TV when 6-11 Wil Bowers enters
the game. Don’t. That is his actual hair color. Bowers looks
like a walking ad (albeit a slowly walking ad) for the dangers of
home hair coloring. 6-10 Hassan Fofana won’t see the court but
he gets a mention because he sounds like a lyric to the 60’s
song The Name Game:


Fofana, Bo Bofana
Bonana, Fanna, Fo Ofana
Fee, Fy, Mo


If the transition from
the style of play of Baxter and Randle in the pivot to Jamar Smith
was significant it was nothing compared to the point guard spot. For
the past 4 seasons the Terps enjoyed one of the consummate
distributing point guards in Steve Blake. Blake finished his career
with more assists than field goal attempts. Prior to that it was
Terrell Stokes, a player who also had more assists than field goal
attempts – although not nearly as many assists as he had
parking tickets. That constitutes about 7 years of distributing
point guards. Enter John Gilchrist.

After sitting behind
Blake for much of his freshman season, the 6-3 Gilchrist has taken
over the point guard duties and subsequently taken over the scoring
duties as well, leading the team at 15 ppg. He has an ugly but
effective jump shot that he uses judiciously, but his real game on
the offensive end of the floor is using his tremendous quickness to
get in the lane where he can finish against much bigger players
because of his strength. He is capable of distributing the ball and
will do so willingly, but when the game is on the line he is far more
likely to try and take over by himself, rather than create for his

He’s joined in
the backcourt by Chris McCray, another sophomore who at 6-4 is one of
the team’s best defenders. McCray was counted on to carry a
big share of the scoring load for the team this year but has not had
the breakout season like Drew Nicholas did last year for the team at
the off-guard spot. He’s a streaky shooter from behind the
three-point line but is not very strong with the basketball against
pressure defense.

McCray is being pushed
by freshman Mike Jones, a 6-5 freshman who won the three-point
shooting contest at the McDonald’s game last year. Jones came
to Maryland with all the tools – quick release on his jumper,
physically strong, great leaping ability – but has yet to see
significant playing time. A huge performance against perennial patsy
University of Maryland Eastern Shore gave Terp fans a glance at his
potential (25 pts, 6 rebs, 3 ast, and 3 stl) but he’s seeing
just 6 minutes a game when the Terps face quality foes. Jones does
appear to be making progress as he saw a total of 19 minutes in
Maryland’s last two games.

The other backcourt
reserve is 6-5 freshman D.J. Strawberry who would normally see time
at either of the wing positions but is now forced to play out of
position at the point guard spot because of reserve guard Andre
Collins’ decision to leave the team earlier this year. Most
players enter the ACC as freshman and have to adjust to the pressures
of playing in college basketball’s best conference. But the
Maryland freshman is a guy who had to carry around the name “Darryl
Strawberry” through his adolescence so there’s not much
that he hasn’t heard.

On offense, DJ is far
from “the straw that stirs the drink” as his father used
to be known when he played for the Mets. He isn’t a threat
from the outside doesn’t take the ball to the basket often.
Where he does excel is on defense where he is the team’s best


Two matchups stand out
in this contest. On the perimeter, the matchup between Gilchrist and
Chris Duhon is a major key to the game. The same can be said for the
inside matchup between Smith and Shelden Williams. Gilchrist has
been stellar the best games that Maryland has played this season.
The task for Duhon is to keep the Terp point guard out of the lane
and make him more of a perimeter player. That’s a tall order
for anyone as getting to the basket is the strength of Gilchrist’s
game. For Duhon it is another opportunity to measure his improvement
over the last two seasons when opposing point guards routinely beat
him off the dribble. This season has been a different story for
Duhon and he’s coming off stretch of games where he has shut
down Todd Billet, Julius Hodge, and Chris Paul – the latter two
being similar players to Gilchrist in that their games are built more
off the drive than the jump shot. If Duhon is able to replicate that
success against Gilchrist it will force the Terps to find offense in
other places.

In the battle on the
inside it is once again critical that Shelden Williams avoids foul
difficulty. Against Wake Forest, Williams stayed out of foul trouble
and ended up with a season high in minutes played and a career best
in blocked shots. He also outplayed Wake Forest big man Eric
Williams, holding him to 9 points below his season average. Williams
faces a different type of interior player in Smith whose game is
built more on quickness than power. The challenge for Williams and
the Duke defense is to continue to be able to provide help defense in
the paint without freeing up lanes for Smith to crash the offensive

Gary Williams has done
a wonderful job adapting his teams to beat Duke. He’s moved
away from the pressing and trapping teams that he used in the mid to
late 90’s and has played more of a halfcourt game on both ends
of the floor. Defensively that took away Duke’s ability to
score easy baskets after breaking the press – something they
were able to do routinely against the Terps in the past – and
force the Devils to rely more upon their defense to win games. That
strategy was doubly effective because the Devils’ defense with
its overplays and pressure on the perimeter is very difficult to
execute against Maryland’s flex offense which looks to work
clock and break down defenses through ball movement.

That strategy may not
prove as effective this year as the Blue Devils are much more
comfortable in a halfcourt offense and defensively this year’s
team is much stronger also. Duke is hopeful those changes will be
enough to prevent a three-peat of losing their #1 ranking while
visiting the Comcast Center. Hopefully for the Devils, the College
Park riot on Wednesday night will be one of frustration, not