COLLEGE PARK -- Earlier this week, Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams ventured up to Emmitsburg to watch Mount St. Mary's play a team from Burundi in an exhibition game. Williams came back feeling a little jealous.
"I wish we could have played an exhibition game," Williams said the next day before practice. "You never know how some guys will react until they get into a game."
Williams hopes that his scouting mission for tonight's 1991-92 season opener at Cole Field House -- against Mount St. Mary's, not Burundi -- pays off. He also hopes to start answering whatever questions linger about his Terps.
One question has been answered for Williams: This Maryland team is more prepared to begin the season than his first two, both of which overcame shaky starts to finish strong.
Two years ago, the players still were adjusting to Williams' work ethic. Last year, they were a bit behind after sitting out the first five days of practice because of a secondary NCAA infraction.
"I think we were able to concentrate on basketball," said Williams. "Physically, we're further ahead. They've had great energy. It's good to know that all the people want to talk about is basketball."
Most of the sanctions are a thing of the past. Maryland's only penalty left, aside from not being able to schedule an exhibition, is not being eligible for the NCAA tournament. Thus, the Terps seem more focused on the task of playing games.
"I think we're coming along," said senior point guard Walt Williams, a preseason All-Atlantic Coast Conference pick and, in the opinion of some, an All-America candidate. "It's more relaxed and more concentrated that it's been before."
The Terps have won both of their season openers under Williams, but they have not played particularly well in either. They struggled for a while against Delaware State two years ago and, after a good first half against Towson State last year, got a bit sloppy in the second half.
"At the time [last year], I didn't think it [the five-day practice delay] would affect us at all," said Gary Williams. "But it did. We didn't play well until the Holiday Festival. This year, the only concern I have is that we didn't have any exhibitions. We can't let that bother us."
Maryland has played a handful of intrasquad scrimmages throughout the five weeks of practice, but tonight marks its first game since closing out last season with an emotional overtime victory at Virginia. The Terps finished the season 16-12.
As senior forward Garfield Smith put it: "We're tired of seeing each other's ugly faces every day. We need some new bodies to hurt."
In Mount St. Mary's, Maryland will face a team rebuilding from last season's 8-19 disappointment, which saw point guard Kevin Booth suffer a season-ending knee injury in the second game, against Navy. Booth has fully recovered, and is expected to start tonight.
"They're big enough to bother us," Gary Williams said of the Mount's front line, which includes 7-foot, 255-pound senior Chris Cavanagh and 6-11, 210-pound senior Dan Kalinowski, as well as 6-8, 250-pound freshman Joe Gower coming off the bench. "I hope we can get up and down the court on them."
Mount St. Mary's is hoping it can give the Terps as good a game vTC as it gave Xavier in last year's season opener. After trailing the NCAA-tournament bound Musketeers by 21 in the first half, the Mount tied the score with three minutes left and wound up losing, 103-96.
"It's a good game for us to open up with," said Mount St. Mary's coach and recent Basketball Hall of Fame nominee Jim Phelan, beginning his 38th season at the Emmitsburg school. "We're better off closer to home, and our kids are familiar with theirs."
Said Booth, "If we don't fall behind by a lot in the first half, like we did last year, I think it'll be a pretty good game. They're going to press, and I hope we can make them pay for pressing."
Maryland hopes to prevent that from happening. Although Gary Williams knows what to expect from his returning starters, along with junior center Evers Burns, there are still many questions among the younger players.
"You never know what the freshmen are going to do until they get into a game," said Williams. "This is as nervous as I get."
This isn't an exhibition game against Burundi, after all.