Before I get to Jin Soo Kim it is only fitting to give credit to some of the players back from last year who showed great improvement. Landon Milbourne is more aggressive and confident than I have ever seen him. His feel for the game, lacking the first two years, seems to have improved tremendously and he is using his incredible athleticism with more effectiveness. He was a force rebounding, scoring and on defense, where he got three steals. The junior captain finished with 20 points on 9/15 shooting and grabbed 7 rebounds in just 22 minutes for a very solid outing. Adrain Bowie and Cliff Tucker are also greatly improved over last season. Tucker is as smooth a player as there is on the team with very little wasted effort in his game. He glides out on fast breaks and has an impressive ability to weave through traffic in the lane. Tucker finished with 17 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists and has greatly improved his free throw shooting. He is one of those jack of all trades players who can do a little of everything and will be very valuable to the team this year, if not as a starter. Bowie also did a good job scoring with 16 points on 6/7 shooting and four rebounds but I felt he struggled a bit. He wasn't as smooth running the point as Hayes or even Tucker and he should play better defense than he did against Northwood. I think Bowie will be a very important member of the team especially on defense because he is the best ball defender of the group. Bowie and Tucker have the ability to put more pressure on opposing guards than either Hayes or Vasquez and will be a tough defensive tandem. I am confident Bowie will improve but right now I think he isn't as comfortable or effective as I expected him to be this year. Eric Hayes was steady running the point and can hit an open 3-pointer if given the opportunity. As long as Bowie, Tucker, Milbourne and Kim can provide more scoring his limitations on defense and dribble penetrations won't be as detrimental. Hayes is obviously more comfortable in his role this year because he can't play shooting guard and be effective.
Jin Soo Kim. You're going to hear that name often this season. As I indicated last week Kim would contribute to this team in his first season but I have to admit I didn't appreciate how good Kim really is until I saw him live on Saturday. At 6'8" Kim is a rare package of shooting, ball handling, passing and basketball savvy. He has a great feel for the game and sense of when to pass, pull up and shoot or take his man to the basket. He was very nervous and tense in the early going, while missing his first five shots and you could see the tension release when he hit a 3-pointer with fourteen minutes left in the game. From that point on Kim went 6/8 from the floor and hit five free throws to finish with 18 points in just 14 minutes of the second half. That is pretty incredible. You have to go back to Joe Smith to find a freshman who had that kind of debut as a Terrapin and he did it with only three days of practice. There is some danger of raising expectations too high but you have to also acknowledge that no one on the team seemed surprised by Kim's performance and reports are that Kim was doing the same kinds of things in scrimmages and pick up games for weeks. It seems to explain why his former prep coach felt he would have been a top player in his class had he participated in the AAU circuit. Kim didn't look like a lost freshman, he looked like a veteran in the flex offense and when his outside shot wasn't falling he went inside to get points the old fashion way. Kim isn't any one trick pony like Mike Jones as he can score in a myriad of ways and get to the foul line. You need to seriously put him in the discussion now for the All-ACC freshman team because he has a skill set that is on the level of Kyle Singler from Duke but with less bulk and a better first step. Some have compared him to former Duke Blue Devil Mike Dunlevey and I don't think that is a bad comparison. Dunlevey was certainly more physical than Kim is at the moment but I think Kim will prove to be a better free throw and outside shooter than Dunlevey. Comcast Center was electric every time Kim touched the ball in the 2nd half and you probably have to go back to Mike Jones for that sort of buzz of anticipation for a Maryland player. Kim's major challenge may be in shouldering some weighty expectations from fans this year. Gary Williams just found another gem.
It wasn't all good news as I felt Braxton Dupree continued to struggle. The sophomore still looks a step to slow and out of sync on offense. He did score 8 points and grab 8 rebounds but I think he may struggle to provide the inside balance Maryland may need. If he and Jerome Burney can just play defense and rebound that may be enough for this team. A few years ago Virginia went 11-5 with a frontcourt that wasn't much better than what Maryland has because those players understood their role in relation to Sean Singletary and J.R. Reynolds. Virginia's Jason Cain should be the model for Maryland's froncourt players this year. Cain was a scrapper and embraced doing all the dirty work to help Virginia win. I think Dupree and Burney may have that in them too.
For now there is a real glimmer of hope that this won't be a lost season after all and that maybe, just maybe, this group might be worthy of dancing in March. Who would have thought?
Let's buckle up and enjoy the ride.