COLLEGE PARK -- In other seasons, the first four games on the University of Maryland basketball schedule usually would be a tuneup for the Terrapins, easy fodder for stretching the limbs just a bit and picking up a few wins.
But such is not the case this season, which begins tonight at Cole Field House (7:30) against Towson State and ends March 2 at Virginia. Though the boundaries of the schedule are clearly defined, there still are a lot of questions about the team.
Some of those answers will come in the next week: Maryland also will have a home game Wednesday against much-improved Southern Cal, a road game at West Virginia on Saturday and a neutral-site meeting with Boston College on Dec. 3 in Richmond, Va., as part of the Big East-ACC Challenge.
"We just can't get down if we lose a couple of early games," said Terps coach Gary Williams, beginning his second season at his alma mater. "But we know we'll get better."
Said senior guard Matt Roe: "Those first four games, we're getting a taste of everything. We'll be able to tell a lot. Last year, we definitely improved in January, but this team needs to win early. We have to win early."
Roe is the most prominent of several new players, a transfer from Syracuse who is expected to give Maryland its most dangerous three-point threat since Keith Gatlin took his flat-footed jumper to the Continental Basketball Association. Roe will start with junior Walt Williams in the backcourt.
But Maryland's frontcourt presents the biggest concern. After losing Jerrod Mustaf and Tony Massenburg -- who accounted for nearly 40 points and 20 rebounds a game -- to the National Basketball Association, Gary Williams still is looking for consistent scoring, rebounding and defense from his big people.
"Jerrod and Tony took up a lot of space last year," said Williams. "It's a lot more open this year."
The same can be said for playing time. Walt Williams and Roe have been starting in the backcourt since the first practice, but Gary Williams has rotated his frontcourt. Senior Cedric Lewis will start at center, with juniors Vince Broadnax and Garfield Smith at the forwards.
Smith, a transfer from Coffeyville (Kan.) Junior College, is a 6-foot-6, 225-pound player whom the coaches still are trying to convince would be better powering the ball inside instead of pulling up for 10-footers. "He still thinks he's a perimeter player," Williams said.
Maryland's perimeter game shouldn't be a problem. Roe was the leading three-point shooter in Syracuse history. Walt Williams, who worked with assistant coach Billy Hahn in preseason on quickening the release on his jumper, is the only returning starter from last season's 19-14 team.
"A lot of people expect me to play more and do a lot of things for this team," said Walt Williams. "That's a player's dream. I don't look at that as pressure."
In reality, there is little in the way of expectations for this Maryland team. It can't go to a postseason tournament, or even to the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, because of probation imposed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
On top of that, the loss of four starters -- aside from Massenburg and Mustaf, Teyon McCoy transferred to Texas and Jesse Martin is sitting out the season to work on his grades -- made Maryland a near-unanimous choice to finish last in the ACC.
Given that same opinion last season -- the team was a respectable 6-8 in the ACC, with sweeps of North Carolina and Virginia -- the Terps hope to silence their critics again. It will be a tad more difficult. But Gary Williams said he doesn't want his players to feel sorry for themselves.
"I hope we can stay focused," he said, when asked about the the NCAA probation, a three-year penalty that bans the Terps from postseason competition for two seasons, and keeps them off live television in 1990-91. "What's the use of worrying about something we can't change?"
Williams will not concede that Maryland potentially is in for a long season, and hopes that the effort he asks of his players will translate into a few more victories than most predict. He has faced no greater challenge in his 12 years as a head coach.
His players, too, seem ready to jump headfirst into the season. "We had more talent last year, and I don't know if effort can make up for that," said Walt Williams. "But any team that plays hard has a chance to be successful."