As curmudgeonly as I can sometimes be vis a vis my sports team allegiances and their various records and performances, I have to admit that my University of Maryland Terrapins are on a bit of a mini-roll right now. Football team on a somewhat unexpected roll and welcoming a tragedy-ravaged Miami Hurricane squad to Byrd Stadium tomorrow (not that their tragedy is something worth celebrating, but they agreed to play, so we've got to play to win). Also, the women's hoops team is starting the season ranked #1, and people are talking about a repeat and beyond. Huzzah.
But of course, anyone who knows me even slightly knows that my favorite Maryland team - my favorite sports team, in fact - is the Terps men's basketball team. And they've gotten the regular season off right, with a win against Hampton and then a second victory Wednesday night over a poised and scrappy (if entirely untalented offensively) Vermont team in the second round of the 2K Sports College Hoops Classic benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer. So far, I have to say that I'm impressed. So far.
This year, the team belongs to seniors Ekene Ibekwe, Mike Jones, and most of all if Wed. night was any indication, to D.J. Strawberry. Gone are the shaky, joyless Terrapins of last year. Gone is the poisoned well that John Gilchrist left behind to pursue all that NBA money (and how's that working out for you, John? Go Hapoel Ironi Nahariya!). Gone is that soft and rudderless mishmash of directionless Nik Caner-Medley spin moves and Travis Garrison unguarded double dribble violations. I feel like the team received a big-time enema with the departures of last year's seniors. And it's a big year for the Terps - six seniors this year, meaning it will be an entirely new team next year for all intents and purposes. Getting back to the tourney this year will give the program some much-need momentum, but if they stay out for a third consecutive year, they will truly be flat-footed and in full rebuilding mode next season. So to me, this season is absolutely pivotal for the future. But hey if this early-season - and I know it's still very, VERRRRRRY early - is any indication, the team is playing like it.
First of all, the players are actually talking to each other on the floor. So that's something kinda new and fun. They're hustling after balls. They look more confident than last year. More mature. They're good, and they know it, and they're going to stay in your face. They're not going to shrink from the limelight this year (it appears). No more shrinking violets or schoolyard bullies here. Even if the Vermont win is the high point of the season, this team is going to be fun to watch. Thank the great good Lord.
But it's not just the new old guys who have this team looking good in their first two games that count (I'm throwing out those shaky exhibition performances). Freshman Greivis Vasquez exuded natural basketball intelligence and spirit against the Catamounts, and freshman point guard looked solid, if relatively unspectacular. But to me, the real revelation was junior transfer forward Bambale Osby. This guy is a one-man rotation solidifier, let me tell you. When I saw him handle the ball for the first time, he caught an entry pass with his back to the basket, turned, and dropped in a nice little hook shot. It's great to finally see a Maryland low-post player who has an actual low-post move. I think my jaw hit the floor. Later in the game, Osby corralled a rebound, and in the same beat turned and fired a beautiful one-bounce outlet pass perfectly in stride to Strawberry for an and-one layup. It was nice. Plus, the guy is ripped. You can't overstate the psychological edge - concious or not - of having someone on your team who can take out the garbage if need be. So big ups to Bambale (pronounced "bum-BALL-ee"). I see him as a great spark plug for us.
But that's not to say there aren't problems. No one on the team except Jones can hit a mid-range jump shot, all our bigs seem to get in foul trouble, defense and turnovers are still question marks, and Ibekwe simply has to learn that he shouldn't shoot when he is more than five feet from the basket. Are you reading, Ekene? If you can't dunk it, pass!
But having said that, this year's Terps have one final ace in the hole. They are picked to finished seventh in the ACC preseason poll. Why is that good? Because the Terps have traditionally made for much better underdogs than alpha dogs. They seem to bunch up under pressure. But when no one expects much of them, they play fast, loose, free, and fun. In other words, they play Maryland Basketball. They overacheive when the chips are down, and the underacheive when the chips are up. You figure it out.
In any case, I know there are plenty of tests left to go. The ACC is once again stacked this year (although someone could probably make the case that it's a little top-heavy and not quite as thoroughly stacked as in other years, like two years ago when Carolina won it all and there were the Chris Paul Deacons, Julius Hodge Wolfpack, Jarret Jack/Will Bynum Yellowjackets, Redick/Deng Blue Devils, and spoilers like Clemson and Va. Tech), and the Terps will probably face a tough test in Texas or Michigan State at the end of the current CVC Classic. But coming right out of the gate, this team looks good. Of course, I said that last year. But what can I say. The Maryland hoops team is the one sport I allow myself to be optimistic about. Goterps!
- Hurricanes Take Field After Player's Slaying [Washington Post]
- A Dynasty in the Making? [Washington Post]
- Terrapins' Young Guards Get Straight to the Point [Washington Post]
- Tar Heels Favored in 2006-07 ACC Media Preseason Poll
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