The tenor for the upcoming Maryland men's basketball season was set in March, when Nik Caner-Medley watched 65 schools compete in an event that excluded his Maryland team for the first time since he was 9 years old. As painful as it was, Caner-Medley followed the NCAA tournament closely, pinpointing at least 15 schools he knew the Terrapins could beat.
They never got the opportunity because inconsistent and individual play undermined their season, relegating them to the National Invitation Tournament, a fate Caner-Medley now calls "embarrassing." Last season's experience, which also included watching former teammate and roommate John Gilchrist go undrafted and publicly disparage Maryland players, left Caner-Medley feeling unfulfilled, a sentiment that has sharpened his focus in his senior year.
"The way things ended up last year, that might have been a driving force," Caner-Medley said. "Maybe if we had made the tournament, won one more game, maybe I would not feel like that right now."
Caner-Medley arrived with Gilchrist and current teammates Travis Garrison and Chris McCray as freshmen in the fall of 2002, five months after Maryland won the national title. Three years later, Caner-Medley has started 81 games at Maryland but has never played beyond the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament. He enters his final season with plenty of incentive after the school failed to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1993.
"This is kind of the chance for redemption for the seniors," Coach Gary Williams said of the four-player class that includes junior college transfer Sterling Ledbetter. "This is their year. I always felt that seniors are remembered for their last years."
Intent on reestablishing Maryland among the nation's elite, Caner-Medley vowed that if the Terps do not at least reach the round of 16, the memory would fester for years, much like the state championship that eluded his grasp in high school in Maine.
Caner-Medley said last season's team played four games in the NIT for pride, reaching the semifinals, but added: "In no disrespect to the NIT, it felt embarrassing to be in the NIT because that's not what our program has been about. You go to the tournament that many years in a row and be the first team [out] is embarrassing. It leaves a bad taste in your mouth, to say the least."
In addition to the losses on the court, Caner-Medley also lost someone he called a "great friend" in Gilchrist, the MVP of Maryland's run to the 2004 ACC tournament title whom last season was generally considered the person most responsible for the team's disharmony. Few within the program were disappointed when Gilchrist, who Williams said was the most challenging player he has coached, turned pro after his junior year.
Gilchrist, who was not selected in June's NBA draft, moved to Israel to play professionally but left plenty of lessons for his former teammates. For example, Caner-Medley said, the entire team learned that no player, regardless of talent, is excused from playing hard every day.
Another lesson, he said, concerned crafting one's image. Over the past year, Williams and players publicly supported Gilchrist. But in May, the mercurial guard lashed out, claiming his Maryland teammates did not always match his intensity in practice and showed disrespect for the game, remarks team sources found laughable.
In a recent interview, Caner-Medley referenced those comments without being asked about them.
"That's your teammates; those are the people who care about you," Caner-Medley said of Gilchrist's remarks. "If you're willing to say things about people who care about you, how do you think people are going to perceive that who don't even know you? He made some bad decisions, and it hurt him."
The fallout from Gilchrist's comments and subsequent departure, Caner-Medley said, has given the current team a chance to prove its unselfishness and the consistency of its efforts, two traits it did not exhibit regularly last season. Caner-Medley cited a handful of occasions when either he or teammates spoke about a lack of effort after games.
Williams described a heightened maturity demonstrated by players in practice this fall, and Caner-Medley also sees it in the conversations players have with each other. For instance, Caner-Medley said in years past he hardly spoke of nuances such as setting screens or defensive technique.
"There won't be one practice this year that I don't go 100 percent. There won't be one game where I don't leave everything on the floor," said Caner-Medley, whose team will open the regular season Nov. 18 against Fairleigh Dickinson. "In the past, when you are immature, there's been practices where I have come with the mentality like, 'I can't wait until practice is over. I am tired. I want practice to be over.'
"It's not because I don't love the game; it's not because I don't want to be there. It's just because sometimes every athlete has that. There are days I'm sure when you come to work and are like, 'Man, I can't wait until today is over.' "
Image is important for Caner-Medley, who wants to succeed for himself as well as for those who want him to succeed, namely fans. He hated hearing some of the program's most ardent supporters tell players things such as, "It was a disappointing year for me, guys."
Caner-Medley said his "whole life is based around this," and players for the most part worked hard last year, viewing extra game tape and watching their nutrition. The result was 19 victories, including two over Duke, but the four-game losing streak before the NIT seemed to overshadow any positives.
"And I feel like [the work] wasn't appreciated by anybody because we didn't make the tournament. Everyone on the team has a bad feeling about the year," Caner-Medley said, "and that takes away from all the days we practiced and it makes them almost like, 'Well, we shouldn't have even gone to practice every day because the year was a failure.' You don't want that feeling after this year. . . .
"Right now, no matter what, we're going to be remembered as the team that did not go to the tournament, but I think it's going to be a pretty incredible story if we were a team that did not make the tournament to turn things around and have a great year."