The seven visiting schools that competed in the Maui Invitational returned to the mainland in various bleary-eyed conditions. Schools such as Gonzaga battled injury and exhaustion, while other perennial powers, namely Kansas and Arizona, struggled, each finishing 1-2.
Maryland, meantime, returned feeling optimistic after salvaging the three-day event with a victory against Arkansas, an outcome that forward Travis Garrison said single-handedly changed the team's mood during the return flight. It gave the 23rd-ranked Terps (3-1) two victories during the trip and newfound perspective on their early-season state.
They learned they have two assertive leaders in Chris McCray and D.J. Strawberry and a trio of front-court players starting to show signs of emerging. They also gathered experience playing three teams with diverse styles and two small forwards of national renown, Gonzaga's Adam Morrison and Arkansas' Ronnie Brewer.
"We got tougher as it went on," said Coach Gary Williams, whose Terps return to the court today against Nicholls State at 2 p.m. at Comcast Center.
The only consequential drawback was the final 10 minutes of Monday's loss against eighth-ranked Gonzaga, during which the Terps settled for jump shots and did not appear to fight back after the Bulldogs' initial 10-0 run. But Williams was encouraged by his team's demeanor afterward in the locker room.
"I could kind of see it in the players," he said. "They knew we could play with Gonzaga."
Williams felt Maryland could have won the game had it relied on interior scoring, a tactic the Terps used in the second half against Arkansas. After halftime, James Gist, Ekene Ibekwe and Travis Garrison combined to make 10 of 12 field goals against the Razorbacks' equally athletic front line. No player in the eight-team tournament made a better percentage of his shots than Garrison, who made 12 of 19 attempts through three games.
"Coach emphasized that, getting the ball inside," Garrison said. "We were scoring on the inside and weren't really hitting a lot of shots from the outside. That was the point of emphasis. And once we started scoring that way, you couldn't really go away from it."
Before the season, point guard was Maryland's position of most concern. But the Terps demonstrated against Arkansas that they have alternate options when Strawberry is plagued by foul trouble. McCray ably filled in, and fellow senior Sterling Ledbetter offered yet another stable option by logging nine critical minutes while only committing one turnover in the second half.
The tournament also reaffirmed that Maryland has two players, McCray and Strawberry, capable of guarding anyone in the country. McCray won't draw tougher assignments in one week than he did in Maui, where he covered the 6-foot-7 Brewer and 6-8 Morrison, who established himself as perhaps the nation's best offensive threat.
McCray benefited from being his team's top on-ball defender after Strawberry's season ended in mid-January because of a knee injury.
"That kind of went unnoticed last year," Williams said. "With D.J. out, [McCray] had to take J.J. Redick; he had to take Julius Hodge; he had to take all the good players."
Note: Minnesota will be without senior Vincent Grier when the Golden Gophers play at Maryland on Wednesday. Grier, who has a broken left ring finger, averaged 17.9 points last season as an all-Big Ten selection.