COLLEGE PARK -- There were some moments early in Maryland's season opener against Mount St. Mary's when center Evers Burns looked as he had for much of the previous two years. He appeared nervous -- his mind racing, his hands and his feet having trouble keeping up.
After missing a 17-foot jump shot, Terrapins coach Gary Williams pulled out Burns and commented to him about his not playing smart or hard or as steady as he had during the preseason. Then Williams did something that surprised the junior from Woodlawn.
He put him right back in the game.
"When I started the season like that, I had flashbacks to last year and my freshman year," Burns said later. "If that had happened last year, I probably wouldn't have come back for a while. But when Coach put me right back in, it gave me a lot of confidence."
Except for that early stretch last month against the Mountaineers, Burns has exceeded expectations this season. He a large reason -- and, at 6-8 and 245 pounds, we do mean large -- for Maryland's 4-0 start going into today's home game against a different bunch of Mountaineers, those from West Virginia (2-1).
After struggling to find consistency throughout his first two years, Burns has been about the most consistent Terp this season. He has scored in double figures in each game -- averaging 16 points, with a career-high 20 against American -- but more importantly he has rebounded better and played more aggressive defense than at any previous time.
"Last year I was completely out of shape," said Burns, who slumped as a sophomore in a more expanded role than he had played as a freshman. "I came in with the wrong attitude. I just took everything for granted. I figured I could get into shape in a week. I learned the hard way."
Said Williams: "I told him before the season that he was going to be our guy in the middle. Part of the reason he played the way he did last year was that he felt he had something to prove, he felt he had to prove he could score at this level. But I told him that he doesn't have anything to prove. If he doesn't score for six or seven minutes, there are other things he can do to help this team."
Burns' contribution is no mere luxury for Maryland. When Cedric Lewis ran out of eligibility after last season, the Terps were left with a huge hole in the middle, especially on defense. Lewis had set a single-season school record for blocked shots (151) and had broken Ralph Sampson's Atlantic Coast Conference for blocks per game (5.1).
Though Burns gets by more on brute strength than quick feet, he has blocked seven shots in four games, including three in Maryland's 76-66 victory Wednesday night over Providence in the ACC-Big East Challenge in East Rutherford, N.J. He also has 30 rebounds, tied with senior forward Garfield Smith for the team lead.
"I came in with the attitude this year of no talk, all action," said Burns, who is still prone to find his way in front of television cameras and tape recorders. "Last year was all talk and no action. I just reversed it."
Burns had hoped to get some low-post tutoring last summer from former Terrapin All-American Len Elmore, the school's all-time leading rebounder. They are second cousins and had discussed getting together during the off-season.
A combination of Elmore's busy schedule -- he was relocating back to this area from New York to start a law firm -- and Burns' late-summer elbow injury prevented that. Burns then fractured his elbow in a pickup game on Labor Day and was sidelined until the opening day of practice.
"I was bored and I went out to play," said Burns. "I got undercut as I went up for a dunk."
Except for the missed court time, it doesn't seem as if that play has had any damaging affect on Burns. Though he still misses his share of dunks, Burns seems to be timing his jumps better than he did last year and filling the lanes more fluidly. But not always.
Late in the first half of the Providence game, Walt Williams scooped a perfect alley-oop pass to Burns in full stride. As he went up, his elbow was tipped by Friars center Michael Smith and the ball ended up hitting the back rim before going through.
"I told him that if he made that dunk it would have been on all the highlight shows," said Walt Williams.
Though more in control of his emotions, Burns is still playing with the kind of enthusiasm that has made him a favorite at Cole Field House. No longer relegated to whipping the crowd into a frenzy by waving his arms from the bench, Burns has become more focused.
"Maturity is the key word this year," he said. "I've been playing within my limits."
And helping Maryland set new ones.
Evers Burns' career statistics
Season .. ..G ..FGM-A .FTM-A Pts Reb
1989-90 .. 28 .57-105 ..5-22 120 .75
1990-91 .. 28 .87-202 .42-74 216 104
1991-92 .. .4 ..26-46 .12-19 .64 .30
Totals .. .60 170-353 59-115 400 209