Next year has arrived for Maryland.
In his 12th season at College Park, Coach Lefty Driesell has an assemblage of talent that should enable him to finally win an ACC tournament, should give him a second straight ACC regular-season title and should, in March, have a legitimate shot at a national championship.
The Terps are that good -- and they should get better.
A year ago Driesell was being written off.After three straight mediocre seasons he looked ready for another 17- to 18-victory season, many of the victories coming against patsy nonconference opponents. He had no center and his star player, Albert King, had shown a penchant to turn up injured or magically disappear from the flow of the game when things got tough.
Picked for sixth in the conference, the Terps finished first, lost the ACC Tournament by a point and finished 24-7, losing to Georgetown in the NCAA round of 16.
The reasons for the turnabout: Buck Wlliams, only 6-foot-8, outplayed every center in the conference; Greg Manning developed into one of the most deadly shooting guards in the country; Ernest Graham moved from guard to forward and changed from chucker to player. But most important, King, in his third season, showed why he had been one of the most highly touted high-school players since Lew Alcindor. Driesell landed King in 1977.
King, who averaged 22 points and seven rebounds a game, was an all-American, ACC player of the year, MVP in the ACC Tournament and, most important, the man who took over when things got tough for the Terps.
He had plenty of help, though. Manning and Graham both won games with last-second shots and Williams always was there to get the key rebound just when Maryland seemed to be in trouble.
Now, all four of those players are back, each hungry to improve on last season. What's more, the key members of the supporting cast, point guards Reggie Jackson and Dutch Morley, backup center Taylor Baldwin and such eager youngsters as Jon Robinson, Mark Fothergill, and Herman Veal are back and everyone will be pushed by three newcomers.
The most important of the new players is junior college transfer Charles Pittman. Like Williams he is 6-8 and from Rocky Mount, N.C. He played two years at Merced (Calif.) Junior College before the Terps won a recruiting war with Iowa and East Carolina to land him. He is strong, will help considerably on the boards and plays good defense. When he comes in at center, Williams can move back to his natural position of forward and Maryland will rebound with anyone.
Point guard Steve Rivers and forward Pete Holbert will not see as much early time as Pittman but both are freshman who are learning. Rivers has been particularly impressive in practice, showing excellent instincts while palying good defense even though he is 6-2 and slender.
The players are there, the question is: Can Driesell blend them as he did last season so they play up to their potential?
"The best thing about our team last year was that everyone knew their role," Driesell said. "The starters knew Albert was our main guy on offense and they worked to get him the ball. The substitutes knew their role, too, and they didn't complain or anything. We need that again this year."
That may be a bit tougher for Driesell this season. Those who rode the bench a year ago may begin to feel they deserve a shot as the season goes on. And they may chafe if the newcomers move ahead of them.
But, winning usually solves most problems and the Terps should win often. Their December schedule, unlike recent years, is tough, with road games at Syracuse and Louisville and an early conference home game with North Carolina State. So, they will be tested early.
Driesell has worked very hard on defense during the preseason knowing full well that defense can carry a team on a bad shooting night. And he also knows that it is the teams that survive a bad shooting night somewhere along the road that eventually make it to the final four -- a dream he has been chasing for 20 years.
Strengths: Talent, which is almost endless, most notably King and Williams; depth, most notably Pittman; experience; this team has been there before.
Weaknesses: Few. Lack of outside shooting and quickness on the point and lack of a 6-11 shot-blocker.
Assessment: This team can play with anyone in the country.