Young Terps seek time to grow

November 27, 1992|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Staff Writer

COLLEGE PARK -- From the moment 10,000 people cut short their Halloween parties, went out into the rain and jammed inside Cole Field House to watch "Midnight Madness" at the University of Maryland, Gary Williams had a feeling that this season's expectations for his basketball team were going to be a bit out of whack.

Here is a team that is coming off two seasons of NCAA probation, a team that hasn't been to the NCAA tournament in five years, a team whose best player last season is now a `D millionaire rookie for the Sacramento Kings, a team whose top eight players this season include four freshmen. Here is a team that was 14-15 last season.

"People's expectations are always higher than what the reality of the situations should be," said Williams, whose team begins its 1992-93 season Tuesday night against UMBC. "Fans is short for fanatics."

The reality is that Maryland will likely finish no better than sixth in the Atlantic Coast Conference this season and more likely seventh. The reality is that the Terrapins could be invited to a postseason tournament with their NCAA jail term ended, but more likely it will be the National Invitation Tournament.

The future appears bright for a program that seemingly had taken residence under a black cloud the past six years -- coming out briefly in 1988 and 1989 -- but that doesn't mean the future is now. The Terps have more talent, more size and more depth than at any time since Williams' first season, but they might not have enough experience among many of their key players.

"Potentially, this is the best team we've had since I've been here," said senior guard Kevin McLinton. "We're quicker than we've ever been. We're bigger than we've been since we had Cedric [Lewis], Tony [Massenburg] and Jerrod [Mustaf] when I was a freshman. It's going to take a little time to blend the freshmen in, but I think we'll do it."

Much of the excitement at Maryland centers around what many consider to be the best freshman class since Tom McMillen and Len Elmore entered together 22 years ago. It was rated one of the best in the country and, considering the preseason progress of Nemanja Petrovic, it might be even better.

Despite what Michigan did last season, nobody is going to confuse this year's group at Maryland with the Fab Five. Johnny Rhodes, who spent last season at Maine Central Institute, will fit nicely into the backcourt next to McLinton. Exree Hipp, with a 40-inch vertical leap, reminds people of Walt Williams, now with the Kings. And Duane Simpkins someday will be the point guard.

"You pay for having freshmen when you're playing in a tough conference," said Gary Williams.

But the key to this season for Maryland will be the play of its seniors and, for them, questions abound.

Can Evers Burns be as effective a scorer and rebounder without Williams as he was with him a year ago? Can McLinton take charge for a whole season as he did down the stretch at Duke that night last February? Will 30 extra pounds help Chris Kerwin become an effective post player?

"You have to wonder, what did Walt do for Evers, what did he do for Kevin?" said Gary Williams. "But Walt is gone, and now it's time for these guys to step up."

Of course, the coach figures into this scenario as well. At 47, Williams is no longer the up-and-comer he was at American, Boston College and early on at Ohio State. But he is still widely respected as one of the best bench coaches in the country, getting his teams to play harder and overachieve more than most.

After two years of playing strictly for pride, and winning more games than it lost, there is more at stake for Maryland this season. There is the opportunity of playing for a postseason bid.

And, after two years of saying that his team wasn't affected by its sanctions, Williams admits that it has been a long, tough road back.

"It was hard to coach. It was hard to focus on the basketball part of it," he said recently. "Now, we can focus. Now, we're equal. We're no better or worse than anyone else. Before we weren't equal."

But Maryland might not be quite equal. There is a huge void between the seniors and the freshmen. The only junior is a former walk-on, Mike Thibeault. With the exception of Wayne Bristol, the sophomores are mostly blue-collar players, not blue-chippers. The Terps will be even younger next year than they are this season.

But you have to start somewhere. Unlike the past two seasons, when they were trying to prove their critics wrong, this year's Terps want to prove their supporters right. Reality says that, in a 26-game regular season, 15 wins is not a bad goal. Then again, under Williams, Maryland usually has exceeded expectations.

"I'm looking forward to a pretty good season," said Burns, a 6-foot-8, 250-pound forward from Woodlawn, who is this season's co-captain with McLinton.

"It's a learning process for the freshmen. I had to make that adjustment. Everybody does. But whatever happens we're going have fun."

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