Freshman-dominated Kentucky is favored to win the national championship this weekend. Only one of the current Final Four teams has a senior as its leading scorer. Hence, the seasoned Terrapins of a decade ago can seem like a throwback. Dixon, a senior, was already a two-time all-ACC selection. Blake had played 71 games at point guard as a freshman and sophomore. Baxter was an established, reliable force underneath.
But beyond that, Tahj Holden and Ryan Randle “could start for anyone in the country,” Williams said, and Wilcox’s development as a sophomore enabled Williams to bring Holden and Randle — 6 feet 10 and 6-9, respectively — off the bench.
Nicholas, an exceptional shooter, became the back-court reserve. Byron Mouton was a tenacious, versatile defender. And don’t overlook the deeper part of the bench. With Grinnon as a good shooter, and Calvin McCall, a former football player, as a take-no-guff competitor, “some of the best games I saw all year were when we’d go for like a 15-minute scrimmage at practice,” Williams said.
“We didn’t have any guys that were kind of off on their own, doing their own things,” Nicholas said. “Everybody was really committed to the program. Trust me, I know: That doesn’t always happen. But that was one of our big things: There wasn’t any jealousy on anybody’s part.”
Said Blake: “It seemed like we played together longer than we did.”
So the Terps romped through the old, rugged ACC, going 15-1 in league play. And though they lost to North Carolina State in the ACC tournament semifinals, they were the top seed in the East Region of the NCAA tournament, opening at what was then MCI Center, in downtown Washington.
“It was kind of like we were on a mission,” Holden said.
The tales from there become the montages in a highlight video. They overcame first-round jitters against 16th-seeded Siena, then thumped No. 8 Wisconsin in the second round. Think of the gantlet that lay ahead: fourth-seeded Kentucky, with Tayshaun Prince; No. 2 seed Connecticut, with Caron Butler; Kansas, the Midwest Region’s top seed featuring Drew Gooden; and fifth-seeded Indiana, the only time the Terps didn’t face the highest possible seed they could. Fabled and accomplished programs, all.
So many stories, after a decade, emerge. In the waning moments of the region final against Connecticut, with the Terrapins up two, Williams drew up a typical play in a timeout in which Baxter was on the low block, Dixon and Nicholas in the corners, and Wilcox was to set a high screen for Blake. Blake, who hadn’t made a shot all night, was to read the defense and make the proper pass.
But when the first horn sounded, urging the teams back to the court, Blake grabbed Williams by the arm. “Coach,” he said. “That guy’s going to go under the screen.” The implication: Blake would be open to shoot.