It is not very often that a basketball team returns four starters and 11 letter-winners from an ACC Tournament title team. It is even less frequent for the tournament winner to beat the top three seeds to win the title. But when such a team is picked to finish anywhere from fourth to sixth in its own conference the next year, something truly crazy is going on.
In a deep and talented ACC, the young and inexperienced Maryland squad that finished 20-12 in the ACC last season now is its wild card.
“We are still young this year, but we can’t [play that way],” Maryland head coach Gary Williams said. “We were up and down last year and you can say that is because we were young, but it’s something I don’t like to see.”
The Terps’ youth showed at the beginning of last season. The team lost eight of its first 12 games in conference play, but won four of its last five—four of the games over opponents ranked in the top 20—to secure an NCAA Tournament berth.
With every player a year older, Maryland knows it cannot blame early struggles on inexperience. “That is one of our goals this year—to play better early and to be more consistent,” Williams said.
One player expected to produce more consistently is point guard John Gilchrist, who has been named to the John Wooden Award watch list and The Sporting News’ All-ACC first team. Last year, Gilchrist led Maryland in scoring (15.4 points per game) and assists (5.0 per game), but failed to produce in home losses to Georgia Tech, N.C. State and Duke, scoring 4, 8 and 10 points, respectively.
The Virginia Beach, Va., product then exploded in the ACC Tournament. Gilchrist averaged 24 points per game, beat Wake Forest with a last-second free throw and tied Duke with a last-second three-point play in a performance that ended him the ACC Tournament MVP.
“He’s one of the guys I’d like to see be more consistent,” Williams said. “There wasn’t a better player in the country that weekend that we won the ACC Tournament, and hopefully John can play at a very consistent good level. He’s got the talent to do that.”
While Gilchrist patrols the backcourt, forward Travis Garrison will be expected to match the graduated Jamar Smith’s consistency and interior toughness. The 6-foot-8 Garrison is another Terrapin who saw a marked improvement in his performance during last year’s ACC Tournament, increasing his scoring from 7.8 to 13.0 points per game and his rebounding from 5.2 to 6.3 per game.
During Maryland’s off-season trip to Italy, where the Terps played five games against Italian professional teams, Garrison performed even better than he had during the tournament. The junior averaged 16.4 points and 11.0 rebounds per game and was named Maryland’s MVP of the trip.
“Garrison played very well in Italy,” Williams said. “He’s worked very hard in the weight room to get stronger. He’s always been a good shooter and he’s added more of an inside game.”
A deep and athletic supporting cast will aid Garrison and Gilchrist. Guards Chris McCray—The Sporting News’ preseason ACC Most Underrated Player—and D.J. Strawberry are shut-down perimeter defenders. 6-foot-8 junior Nik Caner-Medley is one of the more versatile players in the ACC, and Mike Jones and Ekene Ibekwe add athleticism. The Terps have an impressive 10-man rotation, which will allow them to compete with the nation’s best.
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“Going into a year, if you can be in a situation where you can be one of the top 25 teams, then anything can happen,” Williams said of a league that is tops in college basketball. “It is the teams that work hard all year and stay healthy that are around at the end of the year.”