With Maryland's interior players struggling as the 17th-ranked Terrapins prepare for Friday's NCAA tournament first-round game against North Carolina Wilmington, junior forward Jamar Smith could be thrust into a prominent role.

Smith has been somewhat enigmatic this season -- looking like a superstar at times, uninterested at others.

"He's a different guy out there," Coach Gary Williams said. Forward Tahj Holden and center Ryan Randle "are really bangers and take up space, and you need guys like that to be successful. But you lose [former Terrapin Chris] Wilcox and you wonder where you are going to get that quickness inside. That's what Jamar gives you."

At 6 feet 9, he is considered the team's most athletic player, with jumping ability akin to Wilcox and an uncanny touch for a player so tall. He will shoot jump shots from along the baseline or beyond the foul line and also can take the ball to the basket.

Smith is not shy when it comes to playing offense. He has taken more shots than any other Maryland reserve and averages a shot every 2.6 minutes he plays, trailing only starters Randle and Drew Nicholas among those who play regularly for the Terrapins. He also has just nine assists for the season, but insisted: "I'm a good passer. My assists will go up when my minutes go up."

Regardless of the situation, Smith always seems eager to look for his shot. This month, in a 68-65 victory at North Carolina State, Smith took shots in several key situations. With Maryland trailing by six points midway through the second half, Smith drove down the lane and twisted in the air for a difficult basket. He missed two shots in the final three minutes, but Williams kept Smith in the game because it was clear that Smith had boosted his teammates' intensity level.

While Smith averages 5.7 points and 4.0 rebounds, third on the team, he said this has been a difficult season for him. Since he began high school, the only other time he came off the bench was as a freshman at Allegany Community College in Cumberland, Md. Smith went to Allegany because in high school he did not take enough of the core courses the NCAA requires for players to be eligible for an athletic scholarship.

"It's just been a challenging season," said Smith, who also had to deal with the death of his grandfather in early January. "It's getting better as the year goes along. I'm starting to get everything done and trying to get more focused."

Among Smith's learning experiences has been trying to deal with his fear of flying. The worst, he said, came on the team's flight to its Feb. 17 game at Duke. Forced to take a smaller plane than usual, the Terrapins encountered heavy turbulence during the 45-minute flight.

"It felt like it kept dropping and our stomachs kept dropping," said Smith, who remembered looking across the aisle and seeing guard Andre Collins feeling the same way he did. "Planes are supposed to go straight. It kept dropping."

When it is pointed out that with his extraordinary leaping ability Smith seems to have no problem dealing with heights on the court, he laughed.

"That's totally different," he said joking that people are often surprised how high he can jump because of his relatively small calf muscles. "You're talking a couple feet to a couple thousand feet. That's two different things."

Terrapins Note: Assistant coach Dave Dickerson, a native of Olar, S.C., is believed to be one of the top candidates for the head coaching vacancy at Clemson, where Larry Shyatt resigned under pressure on Monday night.

Jamar Smith, a junior forward who joined the Terps from Allegany Community College, is 6 feet 9 and has better quickness and jumping ability than Maryland's other big men.