The answer to the Maryland men's basketball team's problems at small forward appeared to emerge during its Dec. 14 loss to Florida -- in the form of a three-guard rotation involving freshman point guard John Gilchrist. Yet nine days after he was arguably Maryland's best player, and certainly its most exciting, against the Gators, Gilchrist was the last of Maryland's five new players to enter the 101-60 victory over UMBC.
Gilchrist's lack of playing time highlighted the difficult decision Maryland faces at small forward. Ideally, the Terrapins would like a player about 6 feet 7, 215 pounds, who can be as effective on the perimeter as he is rebounding.
Physically, 6-8 freshman Nik Caner-Medley fits that model. Gilchrist, however, showed against Florida a tempting mix of speed and muscle that can overcome Maryland's disadvantage of playing three 6-3 guards simultaneously. Gilchrist had season highs of 10 points on 5-of-8 shooting and four assists in 22 minutes and played late in the game with the four most experienced Terrapins -- seniors Steve Blake, Drew Nicholas, Tahj Holden and Ryan Randle.
"I was just waiting for my opportunity," Gilchrist said of the Florida game. "They put me in there at some key moments and I knew I had to play aggressive, play physical and play hard as long as I could. I guess I just have to wait for opportunities."
For the season, Gilchrist has made more than half his shots, used his broad upper-body to bully opponents, and amass eight steals and 17 assists, with only three turnovers.
Gilchrist's discipline can afford Maryland Coach Gary Williams to play him at the point in a three-guard set, with Blake and Nicholas, Maryland's two best shooters, staying off the ball looking for shots. Gilchrist said Maryland has considered this lineup since the first week of practice.
"That's a look we want to look at, but it's a very small team," Williams said. "Last year, Byron Mouton, at the three spot, was [6-6], 215, 220 pounds. We would go to [three guards] briefly last year with Drew, Steve and Juan [Dixon].
"You could put all three [Blake, Nicholas and Gilchrist] on the court, but this year, we have to see if that's our best situation or if we have to stay bigger at the three."
Williams has repeatedly emphasized Maryland's need to improve its rebounding. Although the Terrapins have been outrebounded only twice (George Washington, 42-31, and Florida, 41-38), they have not been as dominant as they would have liked against several lesser-caliber opponents.
The Terrapins outrebounded Miami (Ohio), The Citadel and Duquesne by an average of three per game, and were six ahead of UMBC at halftime before overwhelming the Retrievers with their size in the second half.
Not only does a small lineup's rebounding concern Williams, but so does its perimeter defense. A smaller defender outside can afford to overplay if he knows there are imposing big bodies in the paint. When Blake, Dixon and Nicholas were on the court together last season, opponents still had to think twice about driving the lane against Lonny Baxter and Chris Wilcox.
"We haven't been a great rebounding team yet, and when you go smaller like that, it doesn't help things," Williams said. "You're tougher to cover probably because you've got three guys in there who can handle the ball, shoot it pretty well. You're also, defensively, not as strong. Last year, you had shot-blockers behind those three guards."
Nicholas said the height disadvantage should not scare the Terrapins from the three-guard set.
"Over the past year and a half, I've had to play a lot of three-guard," Nicholas said. "I've found ways to compensate for my lack of height. I know how to play guys with a little more meat on them, try to use my speed to make up for that. . . . The biggest difference is that, even though I'm not a natural point guard, now, we have three guys in there who can handle the ball. I like the way we play when the three of us are in there."