At some point tonight, Steve Blake admitted, he might get a little nervous. It might be when he walks out of the tunnel leading to the basketball court at Cole Field House to play in his first collegiate game before a crowd. It might be when he is announced as the starting point guard. Or it might be when the game finally begins.
Or it might be never.
As the Maryland men's basketball team continues preparing for its season with an exhibition game tonight against the Down Under Bandits, an Australian team, perhaps no one is under more scrutiny than Blake, a 6-foot-3 freshman. With three-year starting point guard Terrell Stokes having completed his eligibility and Steve Francis gone to the NBA, Blake will start. His ability to blend in quickly and make good decisions will be vital for a team that plays a difficult early-season schedule, beginning with a Preseason NIT first-round game against San Francisco on Nov. 17, and including games against Iowa, Illinois and Kentucky before mid-December.
But while most of those in attendance tonight will be curious to see how Blake performs, he shakes his head when asked if he'll feel any added pressure.
"When you know what you're doing, you're not nervous," he once told his mother, Cindy Blake.
And Steve Blake thinks he knows what he is doing. He always has. In his final three years of high school--one each at Miami's Killian High School, Miami High School and Oak Hill Academy in Virginia--he played on teams that went a combined 100-4, winning one state championship and one national championship. Playing at Maryland is just another, albeit larger, step up the basketball ladder.
"I'm pretty much just learning the offense and learning what [Coach Gary Williams] wants," Blake said. "I'm just getting everything down in my mind and what I have to be doing. I'm getting more comfortable every day and playing better."
"I plan on winning here, too," Blake added. "I don't think there will be any surprises. People say we're a young team, but Duke [which has one senior and seven freshmen] is just as young as us, probably younger."
In the two weeks since practice began, Blake has been getting a crash course in running the offense from Williams. Thus far, the results have pleased Williams, a former point guard himself.
"Number one, to me, he's a throwback guard," Williams said. "One of his pluses is that he is tough--not just in basketball, that's him as a person. The second thing is he knows the position, he has always been a point guard. And the third thing is he has picked up our stuff pretty quickly."
That's important because Maryland's only other point guards are walk-ons Matt Hahn and Earl Badu. Shooting guard Juan Dixon, who never has played point guard, likely will be Blake's backup. In the past decade, Maryland's point guards--Stokes, Duane Simpkins and Kevin McLinton--have had the opportunity to learn as freshmen, then take over as sophomores. But the Terrapins, and Blake, do not have that luxury this season.
"This year is different--this is the first year we've had to throw a guy in right away," Williams said. "The perfect plan was for Steve [Francis] to play [both guard positions] last year and then take over the point guard this year. Then Steve Blake could come in and play with Steve [Francis] for one year. . . . You'd rather have a year where he could learn a little slower."
Blake knew all along that he would have the chance to be a major contributor immediately at Maryland. When he went looking for a college, that was the most important criterion. Wake Forest, Syracuse and North Carolina State were among the schools he considered, but none offered the chance to play right away that Maryland did.
"I don't like to sit on the bench and watch other people play in front of me," Blake said. "I want to play."
Perhaps the only time Blake's playing time was threatened was last summer, when the Florida High School Activities Association declared Blake and seven other students ineligible to play for any member school during the 1998-99 season.
After a lengthy investigation, then-FHSAA commissioner Ron Davis announced that Miami High had been found guilty of major violations and that "at least five players [including Blake] . . . received special inducement in the form of housing assistance from various Miami High School employees and supporters."
According to the Miami Herald, investigators said Blake's inducement was the ability to live with Miami High supporter Joyce Lund so that Blake could have an address in the Miami High district and transfer from Killian High. In addition to declaring players ineligible for receiving improper benefits, the FHSAA made Miami High forfeit all of its victories and its Class 6A state title (its third in a row and eighth in 11 seasons) from its 36-1 season in 1997-98.
Blake's father, Richard, said he considered legal action to allow Steve to play as a senior at Miami High but decided otherwise. So Steve took a scholarship to attend Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va., which has perhaps the nation's top prep school basketball program.
"You'd have to fight really hard to present your case and say you're innocent," Richard Blake said. "It would take so long, the basketball season would be over. . . . It was easier to let them say what they wanted and get past it."
At Oak Hill, Blake started at point guard and helped Oak Hill to a 31-0 record and USA Today's No. 1 ranking. He also prepared for college, living away from home for the first time.
At Maryland, Blake has not only become more comfortable running the Terrapins' offense, he said he is becoming less hesitant to shoot. He also has impressed teammates with his hustle and toughness. During one pickup game last month before practice started, Blake and Dixon got into a shoving match and threw elbows back and forth. Neither budged.
Center Mike Mardesich said: "Steve wouldn't back down. I was proud of him."
Said Dixon: "He's not letting the little things bother him. Whatever the coach says, he listens. He's learning. . . . His competitiveness is the key to our success this year. If he can compete against opposing point guards, we shouldn't have a problem winning."