By Marc Carig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 10, 2007
Sure, some of the names may be different. But Maryland forward Ekene Ibekwe knows that Miami brings plenty of the same traits that have caused the Terrapins problems in the past.
"They've basically got the same makeup," Ibekwe said of the Hurricanes, who visit Comcast Center tonight as Maryland resumes Atlantic Coast Conference play.
If recent history is any indicator, Maryland had better be on alert. Since joining the ACC, Miami is 2-1 against the Terrapins, who have been befuddled by the Hurricanes' three-guard sets. In two losses to Miami -- one in 2005 that came in overtime and perhaps cost the Terrapins a trip to the NCAA tournament, and another one last season, when Maryland was overwhelmed by the Canes' quick guards -- the three-point shot has been Miami's weapon of choice.
Maryland finally delivered a defensive performance good enough to keep the Hurricanes from exploiting the perimeter, a 65-61 Terrapins victory last March.
"If they're shooting well, they can really cause some problems if we're not playing really good defense," Coach Gary Williams said.
So far, the Terrapins have responded to Williams's season-long challenge to improve defensively. Maryland enters the game ranked in the ACC's top five in five major defensive categories, including scoring defense. The Terrapins allow opponents to shoot just 35.1 percent from the field, tops in the conference, and rank second in three-point defense at 28.4 percent. Guard D.J. Strawberry has asserted himself as a lockdown perimeter defender, and Ibekwe and James Gist have teamed to make Maryland the nation's third-best shot-blocking team.
The upgrade has been one of the biggest factors behind a 14-2 record for the Terrapins, winners of five straight. Maryland also has managed to dodge calamity, unlike the past two seasons, when injury problems and the dismissal of leading scorer Chris McCray hit the Terrapins just as league play got underway.
"You want to go in healthy, and you want to go in with no surprises," Williams said. "We haven't had that the last two years. One year we weren't healthy; last year we had a surprise. Hopefully, we can just go through the whole ACC season with our team intact."
Meanwhile, Miami (8-8, 1-1 ACC) has lost five of its last seven. The skid coincides with the absence of its most entrenched low post threat in 6-foot-9 center Anthony King, who was lost for the season to a wrist injury suffered during a Dec. 3 upset of Georgia Tech. Nevertheless, just as in the past, Miami brings enough offensive tools to put the Terrapins' revamped defense to the test.
"Miami's got three guards who can really play," Williams said. "They can all shoot the three; they can all dribble penetrate. They're all good free throw shooters. And they're not afraid to play all three at the same time, so that kind of presents matchup problems."
Senior guard Anthony Harris is the only returner to the Hurricanes' guard trio that has plagued the Terps in the past, but two newcomers have filled the void left by the departed Guillermo Diaz and Robert Hite.
Sophomore guard Jack McClinton leads Miami at 18.1 points per game in his first season with the Hurricanes. McClinton, a Baltimore native, sat out last season after transferring from Siena. He leads the ACC in three-point percentage (48.4) and three-pointers made per game (3.07).
"He's strong," Williams said. "He can back up and still shoot the three. He can take the ball to the basket because he's strong. He's got a lot of confidence. He's got the green light. He's not afraid to put up tough shots and make tough shots."
Harris and sophomore Denis Clemente round out the dangerous trio. The two combine for 17.6 points per game. "I don't think their level has gone down much in their backcourt," Williams said.
Miami's dependence on the backcourt trio is apparent even in its last two games. Miami lost at home on Saturday, 59-58 to Wake Forest, largely because McClinton, Clemente and Harris shot a combined 11 of 38, accounting for just 33 points. During a 72-71 victory at Massachusetts on Jan. 2, the trio went 22 for 36 from the field and combined for 59 points.
"We really have to be ready to defend a very quick team," Williams said.