I've become convinced that this season will ultimately be a referendum on the senior class. If this team will achieve something notable or will falter after a promising start it will likely turn on the play from the current seniors. Given that Will Bowers is a minor bench player and his career at Maryland is "all over but the shoutin'", as the saying goes, the trio of DJ Strawberry, Mike Jones and Ekene Ibekwe are the foundation that will either be the rock, or sand, that Gary Williams will upon build this season. The play of freshmen Eric Hayes and Greivis Vasquez has been impressive but neither is at the point where they could carry a team.
If the 2005 season was the epitaph of the disastrous 2002 recruiting class then this season is the last chance for the current seniors to distinguish themselves from the infamy of their predecessors. The bad attitudes that plagued the '04 and '05 versions of the Terrapins are not present in the current bunch but whether they are winners or not has yet to be seen. In his post game interview Gary Williams alluded to the fact that the seniors didn't come through in critical moments during the loss to Boston College the other night. I am fond of DJ Strawberry and admire his determination and the way he sacrificed for the better of the team last season, but he hasn't been able to supply the on court leadership that I think Gary would like him to exhibit. As the closest thing to a leader this group has he can't go 2-10 shooting in an ACC road game and give the Terps a hope of winning.
It is about time that Maryland fans stop judging Mike Jones through the prism of his lofty high school ranking and McDonalds All-American pedigree. After 3 seasons at Maryland Jones is an undeniably talented player with a beautiful shooting form but is also a flawed and incomplete shooting guard. When he shoots in rhythm he can score from anywhere on the floor and can get white hot if he gets into a grove early but if he struggles early his entire game suffers. Usually when a great shooting guard is struggling from the outside he can drive to the basket and score from the foul line. Jones is a very good free throw shooter but doesn't have the type of game to draw those shooting fouls. Despite a rugged frame he doesn't fare well in traffic and usually prefers to take jump shots which tends to make him one dimensional. Boston College extended the perimeter defense on Jones and made him a non-factor. It shouldn't be that easy to shut down a player that can score 20 points on any given night, but with Jones it is either feast or famine. His defense against Boston College probably cost the Terps 7-10 points. Jones seems to be a nice kid and I'm glad he chose to play at Maryland but he isn't the answer to Maryland's offensive woes. Gary Williams gave Jones 32 minutes of playing time because he had a bunch of friends and family in the stands from his nearby home town in Massachusetts, not because he was performing at a high level to justify those minutes.
Of all the seniors Ekene Ibekwe is the most baffling player. He has the skills to dominate games against elite competition, like the 21 point 9 rebound game against BC last season, but then disappears the next night. Ibekwe's lack of focus and motivation are his biggest flaws. Since missing the Illinois game he has, not to mince words, been playing godawful. He has 12 turnovers in the last three games, a feat for a power forward, and his free throw shooting has taken a nose dive at 3-11 in that same span. I don't know if his ankle is still bothering him but his play hasn't been anywhere near the level you would hope from a player that leads the team in career starts. His technical foul for taunting helped to seal Maryland's fate in the loss to Notre Dame.
Given this I think it may be a good time for Gary Williams to give Bambale Osby a reward for his hard work and improving play with a starting spot. With Missouri Kansas City and American coming up it would be a great time to let Ibekwe come off the bench and learn that he needs to raise his level of play. I'm not advocating that Ibekwe lose his starting spot at this point but he needs to learn that he can't give those kinds of halfhearted efforts and keep his starting spot. He hasn't been challenged for his position in almost two seasons but with Osby playing so well that isn't the case anymore. I think Ibekwe is the kind of player who will perform better if he has a little more urgency. Perhaps beginning the next two games on the bench can help instill that in the senior.
As for Osby it is impossible not to love what he is bringing off the bench. He nearly got a double double in just 23 minutes and scored a number of baskets on BC's shot blocking center Sean Williams. His effort is never in doubt and he scraps relentlessly for rebounds and loose balls. He played very good defense with 3 blocks and a number of disruptions on the Eagles high screens, if only Gist and Ibekwe could learn that from Osby's example. Add in 10 points from a tidy 5-10 from the floor and you can't really ask any more from the junior college transfer. His only weak spot now is his sub 60% free throw shooting.
After a sizzling start Eric Hayes and Greivis Vasquez are starting to look more like, well, freshmen. Hayes seems to have lost a little confidence and is playing a very hesitant game at point guard now which is hurting his best ability. Like a relief pitcher in baseball or a quarterback in football a point guard has to have a confidence or even swagger to play at his best. Right now Hayes has lost a little of that and needs to find his way back to the free wheeling distributor he was for the first eight games. As the season goes on Maryland will also need Hayes to find his scoring touch. Vasquez and Strawberry are more scorers than shooters and Hayes' ability to shoot from the perimeter will help the half court offense. Vasquez plays out of control from time to time but Gary Williams wants that aggressive play from the frosh. He has a dreadful shooting night and really limits himself when he tries to make too many one-on-one plays. In spite of his early season heroics everyone needs to remember he is still a freshman with only a handful of games in college.
James Gist had his best game of perhaps the season with 17 points and 10 rebounds. He played well enough in the second half for Maryland to win but got no help from his teammates. Gist needs to assert himself more on the offensive end and defer to his teammates less often.
Outside of Osby the bench didn't contribute much in this game. The Eagles only played seven men and were normally outmatched athletically by Maryland but controlled the tempo masterfully to limit the Terps advantage. Maryland struggled to get any baskets in transition and if they cannot get a few easy baskets off defense they can't score very well. Boston College just plods along running their version of the flex down your throat. They make you defend for a good 20 seconds into the shot clock and will continually probe for a weakness until the find one. For Maryland that often took the form of terrible defensive rebounding as BC got far too many second chance points. Teams will study this game and the Michigan State game earlier in the year to get a blue print on how to attack Maryland. Slow the tempo down, prevent transition baskets by Maryland, spread your offense out and make Maryland's backcourt defend you one-on-one then attack the offensive glass. This is the formula that teams like NC State and Virginia Tech will try to employ later in the year. Few teams will outlast the Terps in an uptempo game but they have shown a vulnerability to patient teams with good rebounding frontlines.
In the second half with BC faltering and Maryland close to taking the lead the Terps seemed to bumble away every critical possession. With the deficit down to four points early in the half Maryland committed two turnovers and missed a layup with the next three possessions. With the Eagles only ahead by five with 13 minutes left the Terps went 0-5 and turned the ball over twice more. Finally with just over four minutes left in the game and only down four points Maryland turned the ball over 3 times and again missed all 5 field goal attempts with their next eight possessions before hitting a free throw with 45 seconds left. If they had grabbed any of those opportunities the game likely would have gone Maryland's way. Instead they degenerated into an ugly sequence of one-on-one battles that resulted in only 2 assists and 9 turnovers in the 2nd half.
This game wasn't a total disaster. Last years team would have been blown out by 20 on a poor shooting night like this team had on Sunday. They played tenacious and sometimes individually heroic defense to help stay in the game and remain in striking distance until the final minutes. That is something to build on. The offense will improve as the season progresses and the next month will provide the Terps with an opportunity to improve in a number of areas. Let's hope they take advantage of these games starting tomorrow night.