For young Terps, growing pains

JOHN EISENBERG

January 06, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

COLLEGE PARK -- There was a fleeting moment, as Marylan and Georgia Tech were taking their first steps, when you thought Cole Field House might just shatter at the seams last night.

Exree Hipp, one of the Terps' splendid class of freshmen, had taken and made the first shot of the night, a three-pointer, and moments later he had the ball back on the wing, bent his knees, jumped to the sky and let a shot go . . .

Five-zip, a shattering din -- and why not? A young Terps team was on a seven-game winning streak and starting a new conference season -- really a new life, free of probation and blessed with new legs -- and if these freshmen were really going to be this terrific, this fearless, well, there would be no limit to how high they could go.

There was only one problem: the 39 minutes left in the game, during which the young Terps were blistered, blasted and all but blasphemed, reminding any fan entertaining thoughts of an NCAA bid about the devilishly tricky existence that is life with freshmen in college basketball.

Michigan, if you recall, almost won the national title with five of 'em a year ago, and you were wrong if you thought it was next to impossible. Your average high-profile freshman isn't a scared rookie anymore. Anything but. Forget the mental image of a skittish, pimply Holden Caufield in high-tops. Today's freshman is ready to play big-time ball.

By the time he hits college, he has been run through the grist mill of all-star camps, summer leagues and road trips that is the life of a high school star. He has spent his summers playing with and against college stars, sometimes even pros. He has won tough games on the road. He has killed time in hub airports. He knows he is good, and he has confidence to the point of bluster.

Everyone just laughed when Moses Malone jumped from high school to the pros 20 years ago, even when he pulled it off, and although it's still a colossal stretch, it's not much of a laugh anymore. Michigan's Chris Webber was a high schooler this time two years ago. Today, the pros are just waiting for the word.

You can see the gap narrowing as it becomes increasingly normal for junior-high kids to get recruited, and for high school stars to come in absolutely ready to take on seniors, almost with a certain world-weariness.

Hipp and Johnny Rhodes are the ones who have given the Terps an intrinsic cockiness this year for the first time in several years. Watching them blister Louisville last week, there was no doubt that they were ready for the big time, and capable of shining in it.

The caveat came last night.

"It's tremendously exciting when you have great young players, because they're going to be sophomores and juniors and seniors, but you have to live through the growing pains," said Tech coach Bobby Cremins, whose team won, 85-75.

Growing pains. After Hipp's electric start, the Terps' offense slowly degenerated. Unaccustomed to attacking a tall, capable zone defense, Hipp and Rhodes didn't even try to penetrate the lane or create shots. By the end of the first half, with Tech up 17, they had taken nine more shots, missing eight. The game was essentially over.

So it can go with freshmen.

It was their first ACC game, a big occasion, and it was evident that they just got too caught up in it. Not that the upperclassmen were without their share of the blame on a night when the whole team shot miserably -- Evers Burns missed 16 of 21 -- and Tech was just bigger, stronger and better.

"Conference play is always different," Terps coach Gary Williams said. "[The freshmen] found out how intense it is. Anything less than that just isn't going to make it."

Hipp, Rhodes and fellow freshman Duane Simpkins wound up combining to shoot 11-for-33 with nine turnovers.

"People get excited when they have a good game," Williams said, "but when they have a bad game, hopefully people will keep that in perspective and remember that they're young and still feeling their way."

It will disappoint many that they flunked their first ACC game, but the truth is that it really doesn't matter. It doesn't take a professional eye to see that Hipp and Rhodes are real talents, and that their talents will translate into plenty of wins, some of them this year.

It's asking too much to expect them to sail into ACC play without so much as a hiccup. As Yogi Berra might say, freshmen aren't freshmen anymore, but they're still freshmen.

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