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Back from the dead

The University of Maryland men’s basketball team has had a great ride under coach Gary Williams. However, the ride became bumpy the last two years as the Terps narrowly missed out on the NCAA tournament for the first (then the second) time in years. Things didn’t look too good this year either. Missing three starters from last year’s team (I’m counting Chris McCray who was kicked out of school in the middle of last season), Maryland lost five of its first seven conference games and then stood at 3-6 after nine games.
Since then, the team has run off four straight victores — at home against Duke and Florida State and away against Clemson and N.C. State. Moreover, the margins of victory are reassuring. The closest game was a 12 point win over Duke, a game in which the lead rarely dipped below 10 in the second half.
Why the turnaround? Many reasons, including the development of James Gist into a shooting threat instead of just a leaper, and the improvement of the team’s bench. But the two biggest reasons are freshman Greivis Vasquez and senior D.J. Strawberry.
Vasquez is an outrageously talented 6-5 point guard, the best rookie we’ve had at that position since Brad Davis in the 1970s (not only is he much better than Steve Blake was as a freshman, his backup, freshman Eric Hayes, is nearly as good as Blake was then). The Venezuelan’s passing is dazzling, and he can shoot, defend, and rebound. Lately, he seems to specialize in leading the fast break off of his own defensive rebound.
Strawberry is the son of baseball’s Daryl Strawberry. The least heralded member of the freshman class that came to College Park after the 2002 national championship, D.J. quickly made a name for himself with his defense. But his transition to an all around star on the wing was halted by injuries and the necessity that he play point guard. With Vasquez and Hayes around, Strawberry is now prospering on the wing. As our leading scoring and lock-down defender, he’s without a doubt the team MVP. Seems like a nice guy too.
The Terps are now 7-6. The next two games (home against North Carolina and away against Duke) are pretty daunting. But even if we lose both, we should be able to lock up a spot in this year’s NCAA tournament with a win at home against N.C. State in the final game.
To advance to what once was our usual place in the Sweet 16, Maryland will need to sustain its current level of play, plus benefit from a little luck. But just getting back to tournament would be pretty sweet.

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