By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 16, 2007
When Ekene Ibekwe took the floor at the University of Illinois' Assembly Hall seven weeks ago, he felt as if he was playing an ACC road game. The senior forward believes that ear-splitting noise from the crowd and frenetic ambience have prepared Maryland's freshmen, as much as anything could, for the challenge they are about to confront.
Three days after a critical home game against Clemson, Maryland starts a pivotal five-game stretch. Over the next 18 days, the Terrapins will play four of five games on the road, beginning tonight at Virginia. While away-from-home experiences this season at Illinois and Boston College have helped prepare the team, Ibekwe acknowledged that the next five games are "going to be a rough stretch."
It will also be an important stretch if the Terrapins (15-3, 1-2 ACC) hope to maintain their ground in the conference. The inability to win conference road games was one reason Maryland was relegated to the National Invitation Tournament in 2005 and 2006.
Despite having veteran-laden squads the past two seasons, Maryland struggled away from Comcast Center, winning only four of 16 ACC road games. Two of those victories were against Virginia, which has lost to the Terrapins six consecutive times.
The last two games between Maryland and Virginia in Charlottesville were decided by a total of four points and played at University Hall, the Cavaliers' former home. This season, Virginia (9-6, 1-2) opened John Paul Jones Arena, where the Cavaliers have won eight of nine games, including impressive victories against Gonzaga and No. 11 Arizona.
The onus will be on two Maryland freshmen, Greivis Vasquez and Eric Hayes, to handle the bulk of the ballhandling duties in just their second ACC road game. Ibekwe said he has already told the two about the importance of playing with poise on the road.
"Our seniors have played on the road," Maryland Coach Gary Williams said. "Our freshmen have played at Illinois and at Madison Square Garden, so they believe they have the experience."
The presence of Vasquez and Hayes has given D.J. Strawberry the freedom to play his more natural position on the wing. The freshmen are a better fit at point guard because they are more natural ballhandlers than Strawberry, who was forced to play point guard last season because the Terrapins did not have other options.
"Their ballhandling is tremendously improved from the last time we saw them," Virginia Coach Dave Leitao said.
But tonight Hayes and Vasquez will confront one of the nation's better back courts in Sean Singletary and J.R. Reynolds, who combine for 34.7 points per game. Maryland must guard both against their three-point shooting as well as their penetration. Singletary, who leads the ACC in free throw percentage (92.7 percent), and Reynolds are adept at drawing fouls; they combine to shoot an average of 13 free throws per game.
An encouraging sign for Maryland is that Vasquez played his best game in the most hostile setting the Terrapins have been in this season, Assembly Hall. Vasquez scored 15 of his 17 points in the second half, and made a steal and a layup in the closing minutes to push Maryland's lead to five against Illinois.
Hayes, who had six assists in the game, also played well in the six-point victory that snapped Illinois' 51-game winning streak at home against nonconference opponents. Williams believes the performance of both freshmen in that game has given them confidence that they can play well on the road.
"It's all about building a foundation," Williams said. "That is what Greivis and Eric are trying to do this year. I've been really pleased with how they have played so far. They are gaining confidence that you gain from doing something. It's one thing to talk about playing in college, but you have to do things so that it is not just a bunch of talk. They have established that they can play."
Playing one road game in the ACC, let alone four in a five-game span, is a difficult endeavor. North Carolina was ranked No. 1 and had been winning most of its games handily until it played its first ACC road game of the season -- and lost, 94-88, Saturday to Virginia Tech.
Performance on the road will be one factor that the NCAA tournament selection committee uses to measure the strength of the host of ACC schools competing for at-large berths. If North Carolina is the class of the ACC, that leaves at least eight schools, including Maryland and Virginia, with realistic hopes of competing for a top-three finish in conference play.
For Maryland, three of the next five games -- at Virginia Tech on Sunday; Georgia Tech at Comcast Center on Jan. 24; and at Wake Forest on Feb. 3 -- are particularly critical because they will be the only head-to-head meetings between the schools during the regular season.
The next 18 days will be the toughest challenge the Terrapins, and especially their precocious freshmen, have faced this season.
"We have got to keep in our head," Ibekwe said, "that the season is at stake."