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Maryland coach Gary Williams has entrusted his team to a pair
C OLLEGE PARK, Md.--If it hadn't worked out pretty well for him before, Gary Williams might be a little nervous about putting his basketball team in the hands of a freshman point guard.
And if one teenage ball-handler can make it, two must be twice as good--right?
The early returns on Eric Hayes and Greivis Vasquez have been relatively encouraging. One of the two has started every game at the point for the Terrapins (16-5), and they've seen a lot of time on the floor together.
Neither Hayes nor Vasquez is yet ready to make anyone forget about Steve Blake, who was handed the keys upon his arrival in 1999 and helped Maryland win the 2002 national title.
But they've been a solid tandem for a team that floundered last season in a failed experiment with D.J. Strawberry at the point.
"They've been good," Williams said after Wednesday night's 80-65 victory over Georgia Tech at Comcast Center. "They're going to make mistakes, but they know the coaching staff is working hard to make them really good this year.
"They're improving. Whatever happens this year will really help them in the future. Plus they get to play a lot. They saw the need for some ball-handling after last year, and they've provided it for us."
Their styles couldn't be more different.
The 6-foot-5 Vasquez, a native of Caracas, Venezuela via Montrose Christian School in Rockville, Md. is a dashing, flamboyant playmaker with no fear of driving against centers and power forwards. He was brilliant in Maryland's victory over Illinois in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, but just as often plays out of control. He struggled in the Terps' loss at Virginia Tech last Sunday.
Hayes, a coach's son who starred at Potomac High School in Dumfries, is much more solid and consistent. On Wednesday night, he scored 12 points (to Vasquez's three), including an 8-for-8 effort from the foul line. And he had seven assists (to Vasquez's five). Each had two turnovers.
"Eric Hayes was a really steadying influence," Williams said. "He made some really good decisions--and he made all his free throws."
Between them, they also made life difficult for the Yellow Jackets' more heralded freshman point guard, Javaris Crittendon, holding him to five points on 2-for-10 shooting.
The pressure on any ACC point guard can be intense, let alone one who's just a few months removed from his prom. Vasquez is glad to have someone who understands the stress.
"It's amazing. One night I'm so good, and another night he's so good. And some nights, we're good together," Vasquez said. " Tonight, we didn't score a lot, but we ran the offense. It feels good to play with somebody like him."
Their teammates seem to appreciate it as well. Last season, Strawberry was forced to handle the ball because no one else could. He had his moments, but the Terrapins had more turnovers (528) than assists (512).
This year, the ratio is still around 1:1, but Strawberry is free to wreak havoc defensively, and senior guard Mike Jones and junior forward James Gist are averaging career highs in scoring.
Hayes averaged 26.1 points per game as a senior at Potomac, but has settled into a playmaker's role with the Terrapins. His 1.65 assist-to-turnover ratio is second-best among ACC freshmen, behind only North Carolina's blue-chipper, Ty Lawson.
Best of all, though, he's displaying much of the same calm demeanor that made Blake (who's now a Denver Nugget) the school's all-time assists leader.
"I've played in some really big high school games, but it's nothing compared to the ACC," he said. "To be in my freshman year and playing a lot, that's really going to help me down the road.
"I really didn't know what to expect. I knew they'd be big, strong amd fast. But I don't think I've been overwhelmed. Every game, I'm playing a little more and getting a little more confident."
He and Vasquez will have to continue playing more like upperclassmen if the Terrapins hope to end their two-year NCAA tournament drought. They're a modest 2-4 in ACC play, with two straight road games upcoming (at Florida State Tuesday and Wake Forest next Saturday).
"Game by game, they're playing better and better," Strawberry said. "There are a lot of freshmen in the ACC, especially at guards. They've played each other in AAU, but this is kind of different. They've picked their defense up a lot. But they have to be more physical. They're good players, and they're learning."
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