COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Rarely has the focus of Maryland athletics been solely on football so late in December during Gary Williams’ 22-year tenure in College Park, but the drastic changes of the last week would overshadow any top basketball program.
The lack of buzz is also due in part to the utter mystery surrounding Gary Williams’ young team as it plays out a string of three nondescript games before traveling to Durham to face Duke on January 9. The Terps have competed well with top-25 teams, but they haven’t beaten any either. Through the season’s first dozen games, Williams continues to search for the right combination in the backcourt to complement the dominating inside presence of sophomore Jordan Williams.
Returning to the hardwood Wednesday night after a nine-day layoff, the Terps cruised to a 89-50 victory over lowly NJIT that highlighted the shortcomings of the Highlanders more than any real potential of this Maryland team. In the final 3:54 of the first half, Maryland used a 20-1 run to turn a comfortable 16-point lead into a comical 53-18 halftime deficit.
However, the significant story to come from the blowout victory was a new lineup sent out by Gary Williams after weeks of speculation that change was coming to the backcourt. Freshman Pe’Shon Howard replaced Cliff Tucker in the starting lineup and ran the point as Adrian Bowie slid to the two-guard position against the Highlanders. Williams had used the same starting lineup in the team’s first 11 games, deferring to his senior backcourt with Howard and fellow freshman Terrell Stoglin coming off the bench.
In his starting debut, Howard finished with four points and four assists, at times looking hesitant running the halfcourt offense but earning praise from Williams and his teammates. Bowie scored 13 points, including three 3-pointers in an impressive shooting night by the senior.
“Everything depends on practice this year, and that is why Pe’Shon was out there tonight,” Williams said. “A lot of it is how we play different people on the court. He came in [in previous games] and Adrian was playing well at the off-guard, so it made sense to put [Howard] into the game.”
In contrast, Tucker responded well to the demotion, posting nine points, five assists, and four steals in only 12 first-half minutes. The senior looked comfortable in a similar role to the one he held for his three previous seasons as a collegian.
“You never know how subbing a player is going to affect them,” Williams said. “You may lose a player, or you may motivate them. I really thought bringing Cliff off the bench would help him.”
Whether the move results in a stabilization of the backcourt or is simply another blip on an already-inconsistent radar, a change hardly comes as a surprise. The Maryland coach has never hesitated to start freshmen guards, with Eric Hayes and Grevis Vasquez the most recent examples. It was only a matter of time before Howard or Stoglin broke into the starting lineup; the better question is whether both freshmen will be there at some point this season.
Despite last year’s ACC regular season co-championship feeling like a distant memory and the early-season struggles of this season, the Terps find themselves in nearly an identical position to where they were at this point a year ago. The 2009-10 team’s only notable non-conference win came against Indiana, a team not much better than the dreadful Penn State team the Terps defeated a few weeks ago.
The ACC looks like a one-horse race with Duke blowing all competition out of the water, but how the rest of the conference standings will look is anyone’s guess as we approach January. Maryland could easily find itself fighting for one of the top four or five spots or languishing in mediocrity.
We know how dominant Jordan Williams can be — the sophomore posted his sixth straight double-double — but the fate of the Terps’ NCAA tournament hopes rests with their backcourt.
“A large part of the point guard’s deal is to get us to play well offensively, whether that is making the shot or the pass,” Williams said. “It is a tough position, and that is why a lot of coaches were point guards because you have to be so intelligent.”
Perhaps the Terps took a step forward with Howard sliding into the spot, but if not, Williams will continue rearranging the puzzle pieces.
“It was good to see if [Howard] could take that role, and I think as a freshman it’s kind of tough,” said junior Sean Mosley, who started 16 games as a freshman forward two years ago. “I think he came out and did a great job. And no matter if Cliff is starting or Pe’Shon, we’re a team, and that’s the thing coach is trying to see. He’s trying to see what’s the best five out there for him. He’ll probably switch it up next game.”
It’s an answer Gary Williams needs to find sooner rather than later.
NOTES: Maryland’s 39-point win was its largest margin of victory this season. The Terps’ 58.1 percent shooting from the field was also a season-best clip. … Dino Gregory has scored 14 points in back-to-back games, matching his career high. The senior also grabbed nine rebounds, narrowly missing a double-double. … The Terps set a season high with nine 3-pointers. … Six Maryland players scored in double figures, the first time since the Illinois game earlier this season. … The Terps will now have a week off for the holidays before hosting North Florida on December 29.
***Visit the BuyAToyota.com Audio Vault to hear from Gary Williams, Adrian Bowie, Jordan Williams, and Sean Mosley about the Terps’ easy victory over NJIT.***