There were many times last season when Mike Mardesich went out the back door of Cole Field House and quietly walked to his dorm room on the College Park campus. While the Maryland men's basketball program was enjoying its best season, Mardesich, a 7-foot backup center, felt as though he had nothing to celebrate as he slumped through the worst season of his brief career.
It is rare for a player not to encounter a slump at some point, but Mardesich's was so bad that Maryland Coach Gary Williams has gone so far this season as to say that "anything [Mardesich] does is really a good accomplishment."
Now, with the No. 14 Terrapins (10-2) ascending in the national rankings and preparing for Atlantic Coast Conference play after today's nonconference game against Coastal Carolina, Mardesich is playing better than ever. His statistics might not back that up (3.8 points and 3.2 rebounds per game), but Williams is quick to say that Mardesich's improvement has been crucial to the team's success.
In the final two minutes of a 69-66 victory over George Mason on Monday, Mardesich made a critical turnaround jumper and a pair of big defensive plays, forcing a turnover and blocking a shot. Against Maryland-Baltimore County on Thursday, the redshirt junior was one of a handful of reserves to spark the Terrapins to an 82-52 victory. He had six points and tied a season high with seven rebounds.
Still, Mardesich, Maryland's only key reserve with any experience, refuses to say he is pleased with his play.
"I have pretty high expectations for myself and think I have a lot more to do," Mardesich said. "But our record is pretty good, so I can't complain. As long as we keep winning, I'll be happy with whatever happens."
It is a sharp contrast from last season. As a redshirt freshman, Mardesich had averaged 5.4 points and 4.3 rebounds, and was at his best in the Terrapins' 89-83 overtime victory against then-No. 1 North Carolina.
In that game, Mardesich had 12 points, played a career-high 34 minutes (including all five in overtime) and had the game-tying basket in the final minute of regulation.
But Mardesich never came close to duplicating that first season. He played nearly five fewer minutes per game (13.4, down from 18.2), including a four-minute outing in an 88-72 victory over Virginia on Feb. 6. Maryland went on to win a school-record 28 games and advanced to the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament, but Mardesich was miserable.
"At first, I would brush it off and say, 'I'm fine. I'll be back, no sweat,' " Mardesich said. "But after a while, it was like, 'What is going on? I know I can play better than this.' You want to blame everybody else and you don't want to look at yourself."
Williams could sense the anguish Mardesich was feeling. At his routine, season-ending meeting with Mardesich, Williams told the player to forget about the season.
"We just got together and talked about just playing this year and not trying to make up for anything," Williams said. ". . . I think the big thing was for Mike to give himself a chance and not dwell on whatever happened this past season. I think he had to know himself first that he could play. You just need that confidence."
Gaining confidence meant not worrying about what might happen on a play, Williams said, and just playing the game instinctively. Mardesich, a triple major in international business, marketing and logistics and transportation, acknowledged that he sometimes thinks too much.
" 'Do I shoot it? Do I wait? Do I pass it? Do I make a dribble move? Do I try to go to the basket?' " he said of his thought process many times last season. "That's the kind of thing when you are just playing, those thoughts don't go through your head. . . . Now, those things are not going through my mind."
Although Mardesich has felt he has played better since the beginning of practice, it took some time for outsiders to see that. After a preseason game, some fans heckled Mardesich as he ran toward the locker room.
At other times early in the season, fans were quick to boo when Mardesich missed a shot or made a turnover.
Although Mardesich said he paid no attention to those events, Williams clearly was bothered. After the Terrapins' 78-70 victory over Tulane on Nov. 19, Williams lectured fans during a postgame radio interview that was broadcast inside Cole Field House.
"I know some of you have an appreciation for Mike that I don't like," Williams said sternly, looking toward the sections of student seats behind the Maryland bench. "I just want to remind you that Mike is one of us. If you're for us, you're for Mike."
Mardesich also had to overcome temporarily being shuffled behind freshman Tahj Holden in the playing rotation. After Mardesich had three rebounds, two turnovers and no points in Maryland's 61-58 loss to Kentucky in the semifinals of the Preseason NIT on Nov. 24, Williams used Mardesich for just four minutes in a 72-67 victory over Notre Dame in the consolation game.
Afterward, as he left the locker room, Mardesich appeared near tears and Williams, in his postgame news conference, said: "It's not Little League. Every kid isn't guaranteed an inning."
Since then, though, Mardesich has been Maryland's first reserve off the bench. He made a big shot in the Terrapins' next game against Iowa after the Hawkeyes had closed an 18-point deficit to seven in the second half.
"Mike has been giving us a spark off the bench," Maryland guard Juan Dixon said. "He hit a big shot [against George Mason] and he's been playing great defense. There are a lot of people who stay on Mikey, but he has responded."
Meantime, Georgetown (7-3) plays its final nonconference game today against James Madison at MCI Center before beginning Big East play Wednesday at Providence. The Hoyas enjoyed one of their best performances Thursday in an 85-57 victory over Coastal Carolina, with junior college transfer Lee Scruggs making an impressive debut.
In 11 minutes, Scruggs scored seven points and Georgetown Coach Craig Esherick said the very slender 6-11 Scruggs did well considering he had practiced just four times after transferring from Daytona Beach (Fla.) Community College. But Esherick said Scruggs needs more work in the weight room before he will be able to compete effectively against bulky Big East front-court players.
Staff writer Ken Denlinger contributed to this report.