Maryland's five newcomers have performed so well at times this season that it has been difficult to tell they are in their first year playing Division I men's basketball. In the team's past three games, all victories, a freshman -- a different one each time -- has made key plays during the critical stretch.
However, the Terrapins' group of rookies -- junior college transfer Jamar Smith and freshmen Nik Caner-Medley, Travis Garrison, John Gilchrist and Chris McCray -- also have shown they are susceptible to growing pains and inconsistency.
Caner-Medley and Garrison earned starting jobs in December, then slumped and were relegated to the bench before bouncing back in the past 10 days. Smith, generally regarded as one of the team's most talented players, has yet to meet high expectations. Gilchrist still occasionally struggles to run the offense. And McCray, scoreless with a steal, a turnover and a rebound in five first-half minutes Saturday at Clemson, did not play in the second half of the 52-47 victory over the Tigers.
"One day they play really well and another day they don't," senior guard Drew Nicholas said. "It really is a transition, getting guys to know they have to play hard every day."
Although Rashad McCants leads North Carolina in scoring and J.J. Redick is one of the top offensive players for Duke, Maryland's new players have not been encumbered with as much pressure to become the top offensive threats. The Terrapins' five seniors, including one of the nation's most experienced backcourts in point guard Steve Blake and Nicholas, have eased that burden.
As the newcomers undergo a learning process, there is little question that they need to steadily contribute if No. 10 Maryland (12-4) is to remain one of the nation's top teams. So far, heading into Thursday's home game against North Carolina State (11-4), they have had their moments. In the Terrapins' upset of then-No. 1 Duke on Jan. 18, Caner-Medley made two three-pointers that were vital to keeping Maryland in the game in the opening minutes. Also in that game, Smith had eight points and six rebounds in an effective performance.
"What Jamar has done, he's given us a quick inside player," Coach Gary Williams said. "When we lost Chris Wilcox, we lost a potential great player with great quickness. Tahj [Holden] and Ryan [Randle] play a certain way. Jamar is different. He gets to the ball quickly and feels he can score on anybody."
The following game, at North Carolina on Jan. 22, Gilchrist drove past highly regarded Raymond Felton for consecutive layups after the Terrapins' lead had been cut from 17 points to two. And against Clemson on Saturday, Garrison burst back on the scene with five key points during a 15-0, game-turning run.
"Just be active and the points come," Williams said. "You don't have to go in there thinking you have to score. You've got to think that you have to play defense and rebound, and then you score."
Williams was speaking about Garrison, but the same could have been said for any of the new players.
"We're that team this year where everybody has to contribute," Williams said. "That's how we are. We're not Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter and everybody else."
The younger players are contributing, but their development has not always been smooth. Smith and Caner-Medley had three turnovers apiece against Clemson, though Caner-Medley also had six rebounds, second-most on the team. And Gilchrist -- inserted into the game for the final possession of the first half in an apparent attempt to use his offensive ability -- put up one of the wildest shots of the season, flipping a backward shot over his head that was blocked out of bounds.
Later, in the final seconds, Williams yelled at Gilchrist to assemble his teammates for a brief meeting before teammate Randle shot free throws."Coach knows best," Gilchrist said. "He's the one who is the Mozart of this offense and this team. So everything he says, you've got to do even though sometimes you may second-guess. You've got to put your own basketball knowledge aside because he knows more."