By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 3, 2010; D01
These days, each Eric Hayes shot looks almost identical to the next, Landon Milbourne understands how to subtly gain advantages over physically superior opponents and Greivis Vasquez abides by a measure of discretion.
The three seniors No. 22 Maryland will honor Wednesday night in their final game at Comcast Center did not necessarily arrive at their current dispositions smoothly, but their willingness to adapt on an individual level has allowed them to collectively lead the Terrapins to their current circumstance -- hosting No. 4 Duke with a chance to keep alive hopes of an ACC regular season title few thought was possible.
This season has been a departure of sorts for a Maryland squad that in recent years developed unpalatable tendencies, such as losing games to seemingly inferior foes and not being able to finish contests during which it mostly held the upper hand. The Terrapins have not been plagued by bad losses or costly giveaways. In the image of their senior leaders, they have remained steady, and consequently, steadily successful.
"Landon Milbourne and Eric Hayes don't get the attention that Greivis does, and obviously Greivis deserves attention; he's having a great year," Coach Gary Williams said. "But I don't think teams are real good if leadership comes from one person. . . . Our leadership comes from a lot of ways, because leadership isn't always the guy that scores the most points. It's the people that really make you tough every day in practice, that allow you to go on somebody else's court and win a game, things like that. [The seniors] all have done great jobs in that area this year."
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Around 9 a.m. on Feb. 25, roughly 10 hours after a comeback win over Clemson, one of the best free throw shooters in Maryland team history sent his father -- a longtime high school basketball coach -- an inquisitive text message. Eric Hayes had missed consecutive free throws the previous night and wanted to root out the flaw in his form.
"You know, he's not accustomed to missing two in a row," Kendall Hayes said.
One of Eric Hayes's most identifiable traits on the court is his shot -- more specifically, his ability to create in onlookers a sense of déjà vu every time they see him release it. Hayes has made 40.3 percent of his three-point attempts in his career, which is fourth on Maryland's career list, and 86.6 percent of his free throws, which makes him the Terrapins' most accurate foul shooter of all time.
When Hayes was younger and still learning proper shooting form -- "L" shape on your shooting hand, use your left hand as a guide -- his father would lower the adjustable rim on their basket to eight feet so that his boy didn't form bad habits, such as pushing the ball up from the waist.
The attentiveness Hayes devotes to his shot has made him a reliable, if judicious, offensive threat. Though more assertive this season than last, Hayes remains reserved in his shot selection. He averages only 7.6 shot attempts per game despite shooting 45.5 percent from three-point range. That percentage would rank first in the ACC -- if Hayes had made enough shots to qualify.
"I think the natural tendency for everybody is to be resistant to change," Kendall Hayes said. "It's hard to do, for all of us. Change is not easy. You watch two guys shoot, and no two guys shoot the ball the same. It's amazing how many different strokes you see out there when you're watching guys in warmups. You do see a few each year that have a really patterned, good-looking stroke, and [Eric] just happens to be one of them.
"But I think that's in large part because he hasn't been resistant to change. And so many of us are."
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Maintaining consistency has proven more challenging for Milbourne. Given the impression at the beginning of the season that he would be able to move back to the wing -- his more natural position -- with the addition of freshman forwards Jordan Williams and James Padgett, Milbourne instead has continued to play in the post, where matchups are less advantageous for someone who stands 6 feet 7 and weighs 205 pounds.
While there have been moments of frustration, Milbourne has refused to shed the lunch-pail mind-set he has displayed since the end of a freshman season in which he averaged 4.8 minutes per game. At that point, Milbourne requested to meet with Gary Williams in his office. Milbourne, the coach figured, wanted to transfer.
Instead, Milbourne simply asked Williams what he needed to do to play more. In his sophomore campaign, Milbourne started all but four games and averaged 24.7 minutes per contest. His playing time and responsibilities have increased ever since.
Last season, though, Milbourne was forced -- out of necessity because of the team's lack of capable front-court options -- to play in the post, where his lithe frame did not hold up well. By the end, he was worn down and less effective.
The plan to move him back to the wing was put off because of the early-season suspension of junior forward Dino Gregory, which once again limited Maryland's front-court options. Though Gregory returned after the first eight games, Milbourne remains a front-court fixture and the Terrapins' second-leading scorer.
"Sometimes it's not about the individual," Milbourne said. "You're here to play for a team. It's about Maryland. It's about us winning and getting to where we need to go, so if I have to play center, it don't matter. If that's what it's going to take for us to win, then that's what I got to do. That's what I came here for. That's what I'm all about is getting wins and trying to make this team as good as possible, and that's what it takes for us to win, so I sacrifice that and do what it takes."
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And then there is Vasquez, whose most noticeable evolution this season has been his desire to be more like Hayes and Milbourne -- unnoticed for everything but his play on the court.
Vasquez will go down as one of the greatest players ever to don a Maryland uniform. He possesses a horde of statistics to justify his place among such esteemed company. But he'll also be remembered for the way in which he compiled those numbers -- for the flash and charisma his play typically seemed to emote.
In the past, Vasquez was not able to control those emotions off the court, calling out teammates, opponents, road crowds and home fans. But this season, he has been calculated and respectful in front of reporters, a sign of maturity as well as foresight.
"I learned my lesson, you know?" Vasquez said. "I can't be worried about tomorrow. I'm worried about right now, how I'm going to get myself fired up to go to practice and have a good practice and forget about everything else around me and, you know, people calling me and telling me all these things about my jersey getting retired and everybody wants to get involved with me now. Right now, to me, it's about my teammates, my team, my family and that's it. I want to win. And I want to win tomorrow."
United in the consistency that has defined their final season together, Hayes, Milbourne and Vasquez have positioned the Terrapins on the cusp of an ideal ending: A postseason full of promise.