With last season's ACC tournament championship bolstering dreams of bigger things in 2004-05, all of Maryland's basketball players are on campus this summer, taking classes, lifting weights, playing pickup games. Their first road trip, after all, comes more quickly than usual -- in August.
The Terrapins are taking a 12-day trip to Italy to play five games against high-level international competition. And while there will be the requisite tourist stops -- the Colosseum in Rome, the canals in Venice, Michelangelo's "David" in Florence -- the trip will also be the first chance for Coach Gary Williams to play chemist, tinkering with different lineups and combinations, trying to figure out what might work when the Terps begin a season full of promise in the absurdly talented ACC.
"A lot of years, it's a lot easier to pick your starting five, because you got these five guys who are really good," Williams said. "And then maybe, some of these [other] guys will be good eventually, but they're not there yet.
"We've got a little different situation this year, and the trip will help with that. I like the idea we have our 10 or 11 guys that can play, and now we've got to pick what the best rotation is, what our starting five is, what's the best way to play. Big? Small? I don't have those answers yet."
College teams are permitted by the NCAA to travel abroad during the summer once every five years. This, however, will be just the Terps' second such venture under Williams, who enters his 16th season in College Park in the fall. The Terps went to France in 1994.
"I've never been overseas, so it's going to be a wonderful experience," sophomore guard Mike Jones said. "There's always the competition in the ACC and in college, but it's always good to go elsewhere, like overseas, to test your skills against higher-ranked opponents and against great defenders. It'll definitely be a great experience for us."
The team lands in Rome on Aug. 18, and travels through Florence, Venice, and Verona before winding up in Cernobbio on Aug. 28. There will be side trips to Lake Como and either Pisa or Siena.
Center Jamar Smith, the Terps' leading rebounder as a senior, is the only player not returning from last season's team, which struggled during much of the year, only to make a stirring and unpredictable run to the ACC tournament championship, the program's first in 20 years. That performance -- three wins in three days, capped by a comeback victory over Duke in the championship -- has made the returning players believe more is possible.
"We showed how good we can be at the end of last year," Jones said.
But that doesn't mean anyone knows how they'll look. Though four starters return, only point guard John Gilchrist seems completely set at his position. Jones, a reserve last year, could push starting shooting guard Chris McCray for time. Williams could also decide to play three guards -- working in sophomore D.J. Strawberry as well -- for significant portions of games, allowing the Terps to play the frenetic, full-court pressure that has come to define some of Williams's best teams.
But if there are three guards on the floor, what becomes of junior forward Nik Caner-Medley, who has started for two seasons but struggled at the end of 2004? Will sophomore Ekene Ibekwe, who is working hard to add bulk to a 211-pound frame, improve his offensive skills enough to overtake Caner-Medley or junior Travis Garrison? And can centers Hassan Fofana and Will Bowers -- at 6-foot-10 and 7-1, respectively, two of the ACC's biggest players -- contribute consistently enough to justify a larger lineup?
That's what will be worked out, at least in part, during a week of summer practice and the trip to Italy.
"This is a chance for Ekene Ibekwe to see if he can play [small forward]," Williams said. "It's a chance to see where we are with Hassan and Will Bowers. It's a chance to see how good we are with three guards out there. There's so many different things you want to try."
The only pieces Williams won't have with him on the trip -- the players he will have to envision in the lineup and then fold in when practice begins in October -- are newcomers James Gist, a 6-8 forward from Good Counsel High, and Sterling Ledbetter, a 6-4 guard who transferred from Allegany College, a junior college in Cumberland, Md. Under NCAA rules, incoming players aren't allowed to make such trips. Gist, who is thin but active, could eventually pick up some of the rebounding slack left by Smith's absence. Ledbetter could prove to be the best backup for Gilchrist, who will almost certainly play more minutes than any other Terrapin.
But then, in the heat of the summer, there's almost nothing certain about these Terps.
"I've got options," Williams said. "But there are questions to be answered."