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Milbourne's Second Effort

Landon Milbourne draws you in with a soft voice that undermines his perpetually cold stare. He sits in a visiting locker room, leans forward with his forearms pressed against his thighs and looks off into another time and place, perhaps reliving the tale he is trying to tell as he is trying to tell it.

His words relay almost simultaneously what his mind visualizes, but they emit from his mouth at barely above a murmur. So you lean forward, too, trying to see what he sees by hearing what he has to say.

“I felt like I really didn’t do my part in the Miami game,” Milbourne said, drawing back to a game three days earlier in which he tallied eight points, seven rebounds and four blocks in a two-point Maryland loss. “I felt like I could have played a whole lot harder than I did.”

This was in response to a question about his admirable performance earlier that day, when Milbourne shouldered the same burden he has all season, yet, for the first time, claimed it as his own. With the Terrapins desperately in need of some offensive reassurance and a road win in conference play, Milbourne embraced his plight like never before, out-maneuvering bigger and taller opponents to grab rebounds and score putbacks that often defied laws of reason.

Milbourne took care of the first item on Maryland’s wish list – 17 points, six offensive rebounds – but could not single-handedly deliver the second. The Terrapins (12-5, 1-2 ACC) dropped their third decision in four games, falling to Florida State, 76-73, in overtime.

“He tried to win the game for us,” Maryland Coach Gary Williams said of Milbourne. “That's the best way I can put it ‘cause we weren't shooting well and we knew we had to get the ball back.”

Undersized for the forward position he plays, Milbourne (6-foot-7, 207 lbs.) matched up against Florida State players at least two inches taller and 15 pounds heavier than he. The experience was not foreign, nor was it unexpected.

Williams entered this season with the understanding that his team lacked size and experience in the post. His options were limited to raw prospects, such as sophomores Braxton Dupree and Dino Gregory, who were still maturing into the college game and unimposing veterans, such as Milbourne and senior Dave Neal, the latter of which at least was bred to bang around inside.

Milbourne, on the other hand, was trained to impact the game from out on the wing ever since the summer before his senior year of high school. A native of Roswell, Ga., Milbourne played for the Georgia Stars, a local AAU team, under the tutelage of Troy Vincent, who was determined to develop a “lengthy athlete” into a versatile slasher with ball-handling skills and a perimeter shot to match.

During his first two seasons in College Park, those traits paid dividends, as Williams primarily used Milbourne as a swingman. This year, the makeup of Maryland’s roster did not afford Williams – or Milbourne – the same luxury. Milbourne was asked to play down low during his junior season, and he acquiesced. Vincent described Milbourne as “dependable, a no-nonsense guy” who was “always mature for his age.”

From Milbourne’s view, the question was never, “Why?” He understood the team’s need. Rather, curiosity centered on how Milbourne would respond to such a transition. How quickly can mind and body reprogram to think and act like a player who’s larger than he truly is?

Ninety minutes before Maryland’s preseason media day in mid-October, Milbourne walked out onto a desolate Comcast Center court dressed in a practice jersey. He started on the left side of the low block with his back to the basket. Then he spun into the lane and missed the ensuing jump shot.

Milbourne repeated the move twice before finally sinking his fourth attempt. He moved over to the right side and began the exercise again. Later on, Milbourne told a media contingent he was “ready” and that he didn’t have any problem with playing in the post.

His performance early in the season indicated otherwise. Following a win over George Washington on Dec. 7, Milbourne admitted he frequently caught himself standing around down low and had collected a bevy of “cheap” personal fouls because he was reaching instead of moving his feet. He had not yet engaged the role his team needed him to fulfill.

Over the next month, Milbourne honed in on the subtle aspects of an unfamiliar position – how to secure solid positioning in anticipation of an errant shot, how to create leverage against bigger opponents, how to use his quickness and athleticism to his advantage. Milbourne’s statistics into early January were impressive, but they came against inferior opposition.

Then a close win over Charlotte. A surprising loss to Morgan State. A comeback ACC-opening victory over Georgia Tech. The points and rebounds became increasingly difficult by which to come. Foes were the same size – as in, still bigger and taller than Milbourne – but they played with more polish, more savvy.

As Milbourne’s numbers began to dip and Maryland’s scoring options diminished, opposing teams began hounding the Terrapins’ primary offensive threat – junior guard Greivis Vasquez. In the past four games, Vasquez has shot 27.2 percent from the field.

“I can’t do it by myself,” Vasquez has said several times in recent weeks.

Though not called out by name, Milbourne appeared a prime choice for an emergence. Milbourne’s work ethic was never in question, and yet, his team still was waiting for him to engage. The day before Maryland played Florida State, Williams attributed his team’s lack of offensive consistency to its inability to garner second chances off rebounds.

With just less than 13 minutes to play Saturday and the Terrapins trailing by 10, Vasquez missed his sixth shot of the afternoon. But Milbourne dashed around and rose above a pair of 6-foot-9 Seminoles forwards to snare the rebound, score the putback and get fouled in the process. He sank the resulting free throw.

It was a sequence that played out three more times that afternoon – a Maryland player missed a shot only to watch Milbourne nab the rebound and finish the job. With 22 seconds left and Maryland down by two, junior guard Eric Hayes misfired, but Milbourne was there to score on the putback. The Terrapins edged Florida State in second chance points, 23-11.

“With Landon, you don't have to worry about walking in the locker room and thinking he had something left,” Williams said. “He put it all out there on the court. That's practice, that's every game for Landon.”

Back in the visiting locker room, Milbourne sits up to rub his tattooed right shoulder, though his improved posture is not accompanied by a more demonstrative tone. He still draws you in, still makes you curious as to what he sees.

Milbourne may prove to be a critical component in determining the direction Maryland takes from this point forward. His team’s success may hinge on whether he continues to serve effectively as its second chance provider.

“We always knew that was important,” Milbourne said. “We try to stress that a lot in practice. When the shot goes up we always find ways to get around our guys and get the ball and at least get it back out to the guards and get a second shot or run our offense again. I tried to do that every time the ball went up. I think I did a pretty good job of that (Saturday). I just got to keep it up.”

By Steve Yanda  |  January 19, 2009; 1:03 PM ET
Categories:  Men's basketball  
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Comments

You have to take your hat off to the effort Landon displays each game. He has grown by leaps and bounds since last season and hopefully will be able to play out his senior season where he belongs...on the wing.

Posted by: DMoney28 | January 19, 2009 1:17 PM | Report abuse

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