Early-season roll adds bounce as Terps step up to ACC slate 8-1 Maryland could confound predictors

January 05, 1993|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Staff Writer

COLLEGE PARK -- The University of Maryland basketball team had a winning record and a losing mind-set when it opened the Atlantic Coast Conference season a year ago with a numbing 92-67 loss to Georgia Tech in Atlanta.

A promising 7-1 start had taken a disastrous turn during a Christmas trip to Arizona. A 16-point defeat to Rutgers in the opening round of the Fiesta Bowl Tournament had started an eight-game losing streak.

"It took us a long time to recover," senior point guard Kevin McLinton said recently.

When the Terps begin this year's ACC season tonight against 10th-ranked Georgia Tech (7-1) with an 8 p.m. game at Cole Field House, they will go in with an 8-1 record, a seven-game winning streak and a much healthier attitude than a year ago.

"This is the best team I've played on since I've been here," senior forward Evers Burns said after Saturday's 40-point win over Howard. "The chemistry. The balance of scoring. The momentum going into the league."

Maryland certainly will need everything going its way against the Yellow Jackets, who have won five of six in the series in the three years Gary Williams has coached the Terps. While the 25-point defeat remains the largest for the Terps under Williams, a nationally-televised 67-65 loss to Georgia Tech later in the year was one of the most galling.

In that game, two-tenths of a second were put back on the clock after many, including Williams, thought regulation time had expired when a shot was blocked out of bounds. Forward James Forrest, then a freshman, caught an inbounds pass in the air and made a tap-in at the buzzer. Forrest has hit two more game-winners since, in the NCAA tournament against Southern Cal and last month against Louisville.

"I think that will be in the back of the minds of the guys who played [in last year's game]," said Burns. "But that was a different team for us."

It was a team burdened by its past, not buoyed by its future. It was a team that was still ineligible for postseason competition because of NCAA sanctions, not motivated by the possibility of the school's first NCAA tournament appearance in five years.

Williams thinks it's unfair to compare this year's team with any of his previous three at Maryland going into the ACC season. "The circumstances are not the same," he said last week. "This team has a lot more to play for."

The early-season schedule that saw Maryland play only two of its first nine games away from home -- a 14-point defeat at West Virginia and a 17-point victory at La Salle -- served to build the team's confidence.

It also helped to get experience under mostly friendly conditions for a freshmen class that has become such a vital part of this year's sudden success. The freshmen, including starters Johnny Rhodes and Exree Hipp, bring more than just talent. They bring a bravado.

"It looks like they just play their game," Williams said yesterday. "They don't feel they have to change anything to play against anybody. They showed that against Louisville."

The freshmen got a little taste of what tonight, as well as the next 2 1/2 months, will be like last week against the Cardinals. They responded well in a 72-67 victory, with Rhodes and Hipp scoring 15 points each and point guard Duane Simpkins helping Maryland overcome foul trouble on McLinton.

"I think the Louisville game will help our confidence for the ACC," said Rhodes, an early favorite for the league's rookie of the year. After tonight's game, which could have Top 25 implications for the Terps, Maryland will play at North Carolina Saturday afternoon and at Florida State a week from tomorrow. It won't be

long before Williams finds out if his team's fast start was another aberration or a revelation.

"If we beat Georgia Tech, it would be a great way to start the league," said Williams, whose team received 17 votes in yesterday's Associated Press poll. "But win or lose, we'll still have 15 games left in the league."

NOTES: Freshman F Nemanja Petrovic, who sat out Saturday's game because of shin splints, practiced yesterday and is expected to be ready tonight. . . . As of yesterday, there were still about 1,000 tickets left for tonight's game.

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