Top ten tandems in Maryland basketball history

Josh Stirn

Maryland basketball had its season cut short due to the pandemic this spring, but if there was one thing to remember about the Terps this year outside of the season’s unusual ending it was the play of Anthony Cowan and Jalen Smith, who became just the fifth duo in program history to earn first-team all-conference honors in the same year, joining Dez Wells and Melo Trimble in 2014-15, Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter in 1999-2000, Terence Morris and Steve Francis in 1998-99, and John Lucas and Len Elmore in 1973-74. Cowan and Smith didn’t get a chance to enhance their legacies in the same way as many of the duos before them with a deep NCAA Tournament run in their final seasons, but we decided to take a look at where they rank among other great one-two punches in program history anyway to put into context just how special their seasons were.

To avoid program legends like Juan Dixon and Len Bias occupying multiple spots with accompanying teammates, players could only be used once. You could arguably pair Dixon with any player in the national title team’s starting five and form a top-10 duo, but that wouldn’t be as fun as covering tandems across multiple eras. It’s been well-established that Dixon and Bias are the top two players in program history. But who were the top players that shared the floor together? Let’s take a look...

10. Steve Blake/Drew Nicholas (2002-03)

By no means was Blake underappreciated when Maryland won the national championship in 2002, but the program’s all-time assist leader called his own number more in his final season the following year as the team’s only returning starter, leading the Terps to a second-place finish in the ACC and the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament while averaging 11.6 points and 7.1 assists per game. With Juan Dixon, Lonny Baxter, Chris Wilcox and Byron Mouton all gone, senior guard Nicholas had a big jump in production as well, going from sixth man to the team’s leading scorer at 17.8 points per game. Nicholas hit one of the most memorable shots in program history in the 2003 tournament, a walk-off three at the buzzer to prevent an upset loss to 11th-seeded UNC-Wilmington. Still, the Blake-Nicholas backcourt combo wasn’t just a two-man show, as veterans Ryan Randle (third-team all-ACC) and Tahj Holden held down the painted area and freshman Nik Caner-Medley provided youthful energy on the wing.

9. Melo Trimble/Dez Wells (2014-15)

This could end up being the only duo in the top-10 with neither player having their jersey raised to the Xfinity Center rafters, but Wells and Trimble had their best collegiate seasons overlap in 2014-15 to lead the Terps to a surprising second-place finish in the Big Ten and perhaps save Mark Turgeon’s job in the process. Trimble had one of the best freshmen seasons in program history, remarkably leading the team in both scoring average (16.2 points) and true shooting percentage (62.8), while Wells (15.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg) complimented his younger teammate’s calm, quiet demeanor and outside shooting with high-flying dunks and arguably the best leadership in the Turgeon era. Junior forward Jake Layman was also a key piece, helping Maryland go 6-1 when Wells was sidelined with a broken wrist early in the season. A year later, Trimble and Layman formed a solid one-two punch without Wells, but Trimble’s production and efficiency took a hit and Layman went in and out of the No. 2 role with Rasheed Sulaimon, Robert Carter and Diamond Stone also starring at different points in what turned out to be a disappointing season compared to expectations.

8. Greivis Vasquez/Eric Hayes (2009-10)

This is the only duo on the list where just one of the players was an all-conference selection, but that shows just how good Vasquez was his senior year, winning ACC player of the year and the Bob Cousy Award while leading the Terps to a 24-9 record and a second-place finish in the conference. There’s also a strong case that Hayes, who posted a true shooting percentage (65.2) even better than Trimble’s in 2014-15, deserved to be on one of the three all-ACC teams. While neither were the greatest athletes or defensive stalwarts, they engineered the nation’s seventh-most efficient offense, with Landon Milbourne, Sean Mosley and a freshman Jordan Williams also contributing to the cause. Of course, their NCAA Tournament run was cut short in heart-breaking fashion in the second round against Michigan State, leaving many wondering just how far General Greivis and company could’ve went had Korie Lucious not hit an improbable game-winning three at the buzzer, erasing the Terps’ magical 15-point second-half comeback. Vasquez’s senior season is one of the best individual seasons in program history, and Hayes complimented him well by picking his spots and providing blistering outside shooting.

7. Anthony Cowan/Jalen Smith (2019-20)

We’ll never know if Cowan and Smith would’ve led the Terps past the Sweet 16 for the first time in the Turgeon era had the season not been cut short due to the pandemic, similar to how we’ll never know how far the 2010 team would’ve went had Lucious not hit that shot, but what the guard-center tandem accomplished in the regular season was more than enough for their inclusion on this list. As the only starters on the team to average double figure points, they were the team’s clear leaders not only offensively but also defensively, as the team finished among the nation’s best on both ends of the floor while they seemingly alternated the role of top dog. Both were more than capable of being stars on their own teams, but together many pundits believed they had the talent to make the Terps a Final Four contender. Despite the season ending prematurely, the duo still ended their careers on a high note, cutting down the nets in front of the home fans after clinching a share of the Big Ten title following the team’s regular season finale against Michigan. It was a bittersweet way to go out for Cowan, one of three players in program history in the top-10 in both points and assists, and Smith, a projected first-round pick in the upcoming NBA Draft who finished his sophomore season averaging a double-double (15.5 points, 10.5 rebounds).

6. Steve Francis/Terence Morris (1998-99)

Francis and Morris co-authored one of the best and most exciting regular seasons in program history, leading arguably Gary Williams’ best team not to win a national championship to a top-five ranking and a second-place finish in the ACC before fizzling out early in both the conference and NCAA Tournaments. The team doesn’t lack name recognition or star power now -- future NBAer Laron Profit was a senior, while Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter were both freshmen -- but at the time it was Francis and Morris who stood out from the group and garnered first-team all-ACC honors during a year in which Elton Brand, Trajan Langdon, William Avery and Shane Battier led Duke to a 16-0 record in conference play. Despite lacking the overall resumes, longevity and success as many other Maryland collegiate duos on this list, Francis and Morris are an easy inclusion due to their one magical season that ended prematurely with a loss to Ron Artest and St. John’s in the Sweet 16. In fact, Francis’s 1998-99 season was good enough to make him the only player in program history to earn a spot in the rafters after just one season in College Park.

5. Joe Smith/Johnny Rhodes (1994-95)

This duo is similar to the Vasquez-Hayes pairing in the sense that it’s a bit of a lopsided one-two punch, but it’s a rich man’s version since Smith won national player of the year and Rhodes was recognized for his contributions with a third-team all-ACC selection. Smith had one of the best seasons in program history as a sophomore, averaging 20.8 points and 10.6 rebounds, while Rhodes complimented the elite scoring big man with a defensive prowess that helped make him one of Gary Williams’ favorite players of all-time to coach and top the ACC’s all-time steals list. The team had depth as well, with juniors Exree Hipp and Duane Simpkins and a sophomore Keith Booth joining Smith and Rhodes by averaging at least 10 points per game, but Rhodes undoubtedly was Robin to Smith’s Batman as the team’s second-leading scorer and top defender. Maryland reached the Sweet 16 that year, and had Smith not left to become the top pick in the 1995 NBA Draft, the sky would’ve been the limit the following season with almost everyone set to return. The 1994-95 season saw Smith and Rhodes at or close their collegiate peaks, and they’re the first duo on this list to each have their jersey on the rafters, securing them a spot in the top-five.

4. Len Bias/Adrian Branch (1984-85)

The best player in program history, Bias is good enough to appear on this list with a number of players, but Branch was arguably the most talented player he played with, and in their final season together in 1984-85 they combined to score more than half of the team’s points before falling to Villanova in the Sweet 16. It was the duo’s third consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance together, with Bias winning ACC player of the year during the regular season and Branch finishing up his career as the program’s No. 2 overall scorer (at the time). No NCAA Tournament-bound Maryland duo in the last 40 years combined to average more points than Bias and Branch did in their junior and senior years respectively, but ultimately the team was undone by their lack of complimentary scoring options, finishing with a season-low 43 points in their loss to the Wildcats. Bias defended his reign as the best player in the conference a year later, but the Terps finished under .500 in a loaded ACC and not long after the gifted forward tragically overdosed on cocaine two days after he was selected No. 2 overall by the Boston Celtics in the 1986 NBA Draft.

3. Albert King/Buck Williams (1979-80)

With more years in the NBA combined than any other duo on this list, King and Williams left a last mark not only in the professional ranks but at Maryland as well, leading Lefty Driesell and the Terps to their second ACC regular season title during the 1979-80 season. They began the year unranked, but beat six top-25 teams en route to an 11-3 record in ACC play and the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since Drisell’s first regular season crown five years prior. King won ACC player of the year and ACC tournament MVP, while Williams joined teammate Greg Manning as a second-team all-conference member. Ernie Graham, the team’s second leading scorer behind King, added to the team’s offensive firepower, but King and Williams were the team’s most well-rounded player, which helped them spend nine and 17 seasons in the NBA respectively. King, Williams, Graham and Manning all returned to College Park for one final season in 1980-81, but the trajectory of the season went in the opposite direction as the year prior, with the team beginning the year in the top-10 before losing four of their final six games in the regular season and getting blown out by 35 points to Indiana in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Chemistry, not talent, was their downfall. King and Williams are each regarded among the best players in Maryland basketball history.

2. John Lucas/Len Elmore (1973-74)

Driesell ushered in a new era at Maryland when he took over as coach in 1969, famously vowing to turn the previously struggling ACC program into the ‘UCLA of the East’ by going after the best high school players in the country. Lucas and McMillen, two Parade All-Americans, were among the first top recruits Driesell lured to campus, and in 1973-74 they were key pieces of one of the most talented in program history. Despite not making the NCAA Tournament after losing in the ACC Tournament to North Carolina State in what many consider one of the greatest college basketball games of all-time, Lucas and McMillen, along with senior center Len Elmore, brought the upstart Terp program national notoriety. They might not be the top duo on this list -- despite being the program’s highest single-season scoring one-two punch -- but add in Elmore and they might be the best trio. A year later, Lucas led the Terps to their first ACC title with the help of a new supporting cast that included longtime NBA point guard Brad Davis and Steve Sheppard.

1. Juan Dixon/Lonny Baxter (2001-02)

If this was a ranking of the starting five, the 2001-2002 national championship team would take the top spot going away, but even if you remove Blake, Byron Mouton and Chris Wilcox from the equation, it’s hard to beat the inside-out combo of Dixon and Baxter. The only duo on this list to get drafted into the NBA together the following summer despite not having prototypical NBA size or athleticism, it’s hard to find parallels to what Dixon and Baxter accomplished during their four years together on campus in the current one-and-done era. Dixon won ACC player of the year as a senior despite Duke’s Jay Williams beating him out for national honors, while Baxter was a second-team all-ACC selection and joined Dixon on the 2002 NCAA Tournament All-Region team. Together, they led the Terps to their first national title before being taken 17th and 45th overall respectively in that summer’s NBA Draft. Dixon is universally regarded as one of the top two players in program history, and Baxter complimented his quick-trigger mid-range game with rugged paint play.

Comments (2)
No. 1-2
jwohl
jwohl

Bias didn't win ACC POY over MJ, MJ was in the NBA in 84/85

Randytime52
Randytime52

Nice list Josh. but no way I'm putting. Anthony Cowan/Jalen Smith over Greivis Vasquez/Eric Hayes (2009-10) that's probably my favorite team of all time.


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