Monday, January 23, 2006

The Mike Jones Era Starts Early at Maryland

Anytime someone fritters away an opportunity, there is someone else who has been waiting behind him poised to take a crack at it himself. Such is the case with the Maryland basketball team after today's announcement that guard Chris McCray was ineligible for the rest of the season. According to the report, McCray fell short of passing six credit hours in the fall semester.

More on McCray later, but first I want to look ahead at the immediate future for Terps basketball. It is quite likely that Mike Jones will replace McCray in the starting lineup. Jones was the #2 shooting guard in national high school rankings in 2002, just behind some kid named Lebron James. That makes Jones the highest rated recruit Coach Gary Williams has ever landed at Maryland. Jones is hardly in the J. J. Redick mold of shooting guard. He is an exceptional athlete who ran track in high school and one year finished second in the 100-meter dash at the Massachussetts state meet.

Some of you reading this outside the ACC area may wonder, then, why you haven't heard about Jones before. Well, when you average 4.9 points as a freshman and 7.2 per game as a sophomore, the media doesn't pay much attention, and those were Jones' numbers his first two years at Maryland. Coach Williams also had issues with his defense, and he is not a particularly good ball handler.

The young man can score points in a hurry when his shooting stroke is on. He scored 22 points recently vs. Wake Forest on 8-11 shooting, and made 4-7 threes vs. Gonzaga at the Maui tournament in November. Unfortunately, Jones has had two games this season where he did not score from the field, and five where he only made a single hoop, including three of his last four games.

I've talked extensively about Mike Jones on my regular radio appearances with Bob Haynie on WNST radio in Baltimore. For 2 1/2 seasons we have speculated on when he would break out and claim a spot in the Terps' starting lineup. The debate, ironically enough, has often been who should take the shooting guard spot, Jones or Chris McCray. I have been a long time McCray supporter, feeling that he had a much better all-around game than Jones. McCray was a outstanding defender and good ball handler and usually no slouch in the shooting department himself.

Now, by default, Jones will have every opportunity to play 30-35 minutes per game on a regular basis, even if he doesn't start. Coach Williams recently gave him the green light to shoot, but will he respond with more 8-11 games like he did against Wake or 1-4 efforts like Saturday night vs. Virginia Tech? No pressure, Mike, but Maryland's chances of returning to the NCAA tournament might very well be riding on it.

I recently wrote a piece sharing my concerns and disappointment with the character and heart of the 2005-06 Maryland basketball team, so obviously this is just another brick in that wall. The blame game is being played among Maryland fans regarding McCray's demise. Quesions about academics and college athletes is a very sticky subject and, of course, the opportunities and challenges these players face succeeding in both areas vary wildly.

There is an extensive academic support unit on the College Park campus and many others with major sports programs. These schools often realize that they are reaching below normal standards to accept some of their athetes, particularly football and men's basketball players, into school and have made great efforts at significant expense to help them meet at least minimum standards of eligibility. If an athlete is in over his head at one of these schools, he has every opportunity and then some to get help that is often well above and beyond what the average non-athlete will receive.

When someone in this situation, with all these resources made available to him, fails, they should only have to look in the mirror to find the person responsible. I hope Chris McCray does this and uses this latest misstep to FINALLY grow up. I hope he feels the responsibility of letting his teammates and coaches down and that it bothers him enough to make a difference in how he approaches the rest of his life.

Here is the Washington Post article on this story with comments from McCray's mom. She is more than happy to point the finger away from her son.

Coach Gary Williams is not blameless in this situation. I don't fault him for McCray's failure in the classroom. I've always had the impression that Williams is a bit more hands off regarding off the court activities than some coaches are, and I totally respect that. It's up to him to give his players the opportunity to be successful, but if he or his staff hold their hands through every step of their life while they're on campus, what would they really learn from the experience? Maybe that their athletic ability will continue to entitle them to special treatment instead of figuring out how to manage their own lives like most other college students.

Where Williams has come up short is in his recruiting. He obviously recruited talented players on this year's team, but did he sacrifice character and heart to do so? The results, both on and off the court, lead me to conclude that he did. The balance of the 2005-06 season is very important to Williams and Terrapin basketball, but it will be the next two recruiting classes that will allow us to completely evaluate what direction the program is heading.

Right now, it is closer to slipping into mediocrity than returning to the Final Four. Coach Williams has done some of his best work in his most challenging situations. He now has another opportunity to excel.


At 9:35 PM, Blogger Sports Bettor said...

I hated to hear about McCray.


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