They remember the ACC championship because that's what everyone talked about all summer, how for three improbable days last spring in Greensboro, N.C., Maryland was the best basketball team in the best basketball conference in the country. But as the Terrapins prepare to open a season filled with both the promise that comes with a deep, experienced roster and the peril that lies in a brutal ACC schedule, they still have clear memories of the three long months that preceded the ACC title.
"We look back at last year, and we won the ACC tournament," junior forward Nik Caner-Medley said. "But I think the struggles we had during the year brought us together as a team a lot. . . . That whole experience of the ups and downs is really what takes a team to the next level in terms of their character, because if you're experiencing all positive things as a team, you're not really going to find out a lot about yourselves."
Because of the dichotomy of the Terrapins a year ago -- winning the ACC title after struggling all year long -- there is plenty to find out about this year's version when practice opens late Friday night with the annual Midnight Madness at Comcast Center. The Terps know they are good enough to compete with any team in the monstrously difficult ACC. But they also vow to remember that they needed to win the final two games of the regular season just to finish 7-9 in the league. The forces tug in opposite directions -- the title inflates expectations, the inconsistent regular season points to a different reality.
"That 7-9 is there," Maryland Coach Gary Williams said. "That's what we were during the regular season. It was a good 7-9 because of who we played. . . . If we learn from that, if we remember how close we were in some of those games when we didn't get wins, that'll be good."
The Terps spent much of their annual media day yesterday saying they have learned from the tumultuous season of a year ago, one in which Maryland advanced to the NCAA tournament for the 11th straight year -- losing to Syracuse in the second round -- but twice lost four games in a five-game stretch. That, however, was a team with five freshmen and four sophomores. Now only center Jamar Smith, the Terps' leading rebounder, is gone, so Williams is asking this team to eliminate the four- or five-minute stretches without a basket, to play as well in December as it did last March, to be consistent.
"We were up and down last year," Williams said. "You can say that's because we were young, but it's something I don't like to see."
Junior point guard John Gilchrist, the MVP of the ACC tournament, returns as the leading scorer. Caner-Medley has been a starter for much of two seasons. Guard Chris McCray and forward Travis Garrison, starters a year ago, both played well on a summer trip to Italy, and both got stronger. Guard D.J. Strawberry has a knack for making important defensive plays. Guard Mike Jones is one of the best pure shooters in the country, and forward Ekene Ibekwe has the athletic ability a gazelle would envy.
"We have so much talent," Garrison said, "at every position."
Yet so do other teams in the ACC. Wake Forest could be ranked as the top team in the nation when the season opens. Georgia Tech reached the national title game last year and has nearly everyone back. North Carolina hopes to overcome two inconsistent seasons and let its talent take over. N.C. State has the returning ACC player of the year, senior Julius Hodge. Duke has three starters back from a Final Four team a year ago.
Gilchrist and Caner-Medley spent time working as counselors at two camps for prep players this summer, and they hung out with other elite players from across the nation. The conversations would always turn to basketball, about who would be good, who would win what league, what players are underrated. Caner-Medley said that players from other conferences gave the Terrapins respect, but he said he also realized that other players were working just as hard to improve. That ACC championship doesn't mean much come Nov. 19, when the Terps open the season against Jackson State. It means even less when they face Memphis, Wisconsin and, quite possibly, Michigan State in the BB&T Classic in early December at MCI Center.
So that's how they say they will approach this season: ACC champions, with something to prove.
"It's easy to get to a level and get to a point where you feel all confident and even arrogant," Gilchrist said. "But what keeps you grounded is that fear of losing, that fear of not being successful. That's what drives you. That's what scares you."