During the first month of the season, the Maryland men's basketball team was among the nation's busiest, with a schedule rivaling that of a professional team.

The Terrapins played 10 games in 24 days, forcing Coach Gary Williams to devote most of the team's practice time to preparing for the next game. Maryland played on consecutive nights in the BB&T Classic; four other times, the Terrapins had just one day of practice to prepare for a game.

But with 15 days off between their victory over Kentucky and their next game, Monday night against George Mason at Cole Field House, the 17th-ranked Terrapins (8-2) have been returning to basketball class, working on simply improving themselves. It is much different than in recent seasons, when Maryland had experienced players, such as four-year mainstays Laron Profit, Terrell Stokes and Obinna Ekezie, and a shorter layoff for fall-semester exams and Christmas. This the Terrapins' longest layoff under Williams, who is in his 11th season at Maryland.

"We have put some different stuff in," Williams said. "We are getting to look at a lot of different combinations. . . . This is unique."

With no seniors and three freshmen in its eight-man playing rotation, this is one of the youngest teams Williams has fielded. Because of its youth, Williams gradually has installed his offensive and defensive systems. Now that the players have learned most of the systems, much of their practice time the past two weeks has been devoted to meticulously going through different situations, such as running offensive plays through an entire possession or working on playing better pressure defense. The Terrapins have not played as much pressure defense as they have in past seasons, but still have found ways to be successful.

No two of Maryland's victories have been alike. The Terrapins rallied from 17 points against Tulane, pulled one out in overtime against Winthrop and won in the final seconds against Illinois, now ranked 15th. Shooting guard Juan Dixon, forward Terence Morris and center Lonny Baxter have taken turns as the team's top offensive threat.

The one thing the Terrapins are still seeking is to play a complete, all-around game. Williams hopes this extended layoff will help them do that.

"Last year [with an experienced team], it was just keeping them interested during the break," Williams said. ". . . With this team this year, you are still teaching. It is not just polishing to get better at what you do. You are still trying to point out some things and teaching."

The practice time also is giving Williams a chance to evaluate redshirt freshman guard-forward Calvin McCall, the starting quarterback on the football team who joined the basketball team at practice on Dec. 14. Williams has remained noncommittal on McCall's status, but given Maryland's lack of depth at shooting guard and small forward, McCall likely will be in uniform Monday night.

Perhaps the biggest focus for Maryland is getting Dixon, a streaky shooter, back on track. Dixon was the team's best outside shooter early, shooting 64.1 percent in the Terrapins' first three games. But he was 10 for 29 in Maryland's last two games.

"I have to do something about that," Dixon said after Maryland's 72-66 victory over Kentucky on Dec. 11. "Something has to happen."

While the players have done individual work, keeping practice lively can be difficult because the players have become so familiar with each other.

"We have been getting as much intensity as can be expected," redshirt junior center Mike Mardesich said. "We are really trying to keep what we have going. We're just trying to keep the intensity level high and simulate game situations."

After practicing Wednesday morning in the campus's new recreation center because of graduation ceremonies at Cole Field House, Maryland's players returned home for Christmas. The Terrapins practiced last night, and will practice twice today to prepare for George Mason. This will be the teams' first meeting since the 1989-90 season. Maryland is 4-0 all-time against the Patriots.

Maryland's players are looking forward to playing against another team.

"It is like the preseason," sophomore forward Danny Miller said. "After long weeks of practice, you want to get into a game and do something."

Maryland's Upcoming Schedule

Date Opponent Time

Mon. GMU 8 p.m.

Thurs. UMBC 8 p.m.

Sun. Coastal Car. 1 p.m.

Jan. 6 at N.C. State 7 p.m.

Jan. 9 Duke 1 or 4 p.m.