He has scored from behind the three-point line, on runners and floaters, bank shots and swishes, in transition and off set plays. On Wednesday night, Juan Dixon will get a good test to see how much he has improved in just a few months.
One week into this season, Dixon has gone from being a spark plug off the bench to averaging 22 points, leading Maryland to a 3-0 record and the No. 24 ranking in this week's Associated Press men's basketball poll. Terrapins Coach Gary Williams said Wednesday's game here against No. 11 Kentucky in the Preseason NIT semifinals will be a test for his team; but it also will be a test for the redshirt sophomore shooting guard.
It is the first of two games between the teams in 18 days; Maryland, which has not beaten Kentucky since the 1957-58 season, hosts the Wildcats on Dec. 11.
Kentucky Coach Tubby Smith is aware that Dixon has emerged as Maryland's main scoring threat to accompany junior forward Terence Morris. One can expect Kentucky will try to limit Dixon's effectiveness more than any of the Terrapins' first three opponents. The Wildcats (2-0) limited their first two opponents to 35 percent shooting from the field.
"Playing Kentucky is a different game than we have played so far," Williams said. "They're a different level of team. Hopefully we can compete the same way we've competed the last three games. As a coach, that is the thing I am looking at, to see if we'll go after a very good team like Kentucky."
Williams also will be looking to see how Dixon fares when opponents focus on him. After Dixon averaged 7.4 points per game last season--and scored 43 percent of his points on three-pointers--Williams knew Dixon would have to change his game to be successful. In individual season-ending meetings last March, Williams told Dixon to improve his ballhandling so that he could play some point guard and find other ways to score in addition to shooting from the outside.
"I said, 'Look, you can really shoot the ball but other teams know that so they are going to come out every time you catch it, so you better be able to put it on the floor next year,' " Williams said. "With Juan, what he's got now is that interim jump shot very few players have; they either dunk it or they shoot the three nowadays. He's got that stop and pull up on the glass. He's gotten to where he can change the arc on [his shot] when he is in there with the big boys and kiss it off the glass."
Dixon spent much of the summer working on his dribbling. Depending on if he was on campus or at home in Baltimore, he would set up a series of trash cans on the Cole Field House court or an outdoor court near his home and practice weaving through the cans, then finishing with a strong layup. He also worked on his shot, trying to copy San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan's ability to make bank shots and Philadelphia 76ers guard Allen Iverson's ability to shoot on the move.
In Maryland's first three games, Dixon's improvement has been noticeable at both guard positions. He leads the team in scoring, has made 58 percent of his shots--including 6 of 13 from three-point range--and has made only eight turnovers. Offensively, Dixon has been most impressive with his ability to drive to the basket and either finish strong or pull up for a jump shot.
Perhaps the biggest problem for the 6-foot-3 Dixon is making the transition from shooting guard to point guard when he spells freshman Steve Blake. When running the point, Dixon often looks hurried, even when he dribbles.
"I go too fast," Dixon said. "I have to slow it down a notch. [Playing point guard,] you have to run the team and lead the team and I'm learning how to do that. It's very hard. I've never played point guard. Most coaches have told me to go on the wing and just shoot the ball. Coach is giving me the opportunity to play [point guard] and I want to take advantage of it. I am going to have to sooner or later because I'm only 6-3 and to fulfill my dream [of playing in the NBA], I have to learn how to play point."
Dixon vividly remembers Maryland's 103-91 loss at Kentucky last season, when the Terrapins fell behind quickly and never fully recovered.
"Going into that game, our press was working for us and they just exploited it," Dixon said. "They were going down the sidelines. I'm sure they're going to try to attack it the same way."
Even if the Wildcats use a similar strategy, Wednesday's game will be somewhat different with both teams losing four starters from last season. However, there remain many similarities between the teams, including their use of freshmen. While Maryland relies on three freshmen, the first two players off Kentucky's bench are freshmen Keith Bogans from DeMatha High and Marvin Stone.
"Both teams like to press," Kentucky's Smith said. "Both teams like to run. . . . It will be a challenge because we are very similar."
In the first semifinal, eighth-ranked Arizona meets Notre Dame. Wednesday's winners and losers will play in Friday's final and consolation game.
Terrapins Notes: Maryland has committed to play in the Maui Invitational next fall. . . . Williams said that he does not expect to renew the made-for-television, home-and-home series with Kentucky after this season. "I think three times in two years is enough," he said.