Freshman glitz gives way to growing pains for ACClimated Terps

NO HYPE, JUST HOPE

February 23, 1993|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Staff Writer

COLLEGE PARK -- A little less than two months ago, a combination of hype and hope filled Cole Field House. The University of Maryland basketball team had beaten Louisville on its way to an 8-1 start.

There was talk of taking a jump from near the bottom to the middle of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

There was talk of making the NCAA tournament for the first time in five years.

There was talk of putting the past three years' worth of xTC disappointments and despair to rest.

"People thought that with the loss of players like Walt [Williams] and [Christian] Laettner, [Tom] Gugliotta and [Bryant] Stith, our conference was going to be down," Maryland coach Gary Williams said recently. "Our conference is deeper than it was last year and what happened is we've played six teams ranked in the Top 25. That's 12 games on our schedule."

And so far, 11 losses in 12 ACC games, including the longest ACC losing streak in Williams' four seasons at Maryland. The 10-12 Terps have lost seven straight -- all but one to ranked teams -- and will have had a week off by the time they return to the court tomorrow night at home against North Carolina State.

Although in other years Williams might have gone through a few fuses in his short temper, he has remained calm this season. The hype from December might be faded, but the hope is still there that Williams eventually will turn around this once nationally ranked program.

"I hate to lose," said Williams, 47, who could suffer through back-to-back losing seasons for the first time in his 15-year career as a Division I head coach. "At the same time, I realize I have seen some improvement from our younger guys. I've been happy with how hard the freshmen have played. Next year, they'll know what to expect."

With as many as three in the starting lineup and four in the regular rotation -- a fifth, center Nemanja Petrovic, was a key reserve until suffering a stress fracture of his leg last month -- Maryland has the youngest team in the ACC and one of the least experienced of any major-conference team in the country.

The freshman class has given indication of a bright future, but it has demonstrated that this was by no means the second coming of last year's "Fab Five" at Michigan or even of North Carolina's recruits from two years ago.

"A lot of people looked at them [the freshmen] and said they were going to save the program," senior guard Kevin McLinton said. "[People said] Johnny Rhodes was going to take the place of Walt Williams this year. You can't put that kind of pressure on a freshman and expect him not to feel it."

Rhodes, who is likely to be the ACC Rookie of the Year despite shooting less than 40 percent from the field, said, "It's not the pressure that's getting to me, I'm just not hitting my shots."

And freshman forward Exree Hipp, who could give Rhodes some competition as the league's top freshman, said recently, "It's a learning experience every time out."

Though he recently inserted a third freshman, forward Mario Lucas, into the starting lineup, Williams is not ready to sacrifice the present for the future. Stranger things have happened in college basketball, though playing in the top-heavy ACC certainly reduces Maryland's chances of a miraculous late-season turnaround.

"You build for the future, but you can't neglect the players who are currently in your program," said Williams, who is still feeling the aftershocks of the three-year NCAA probation that he inherited from the previous regime. "The seniors have gone through some pretty tough times. They've stuck in, so you can't say, 'Let's get ready for next year.' "

Part of the problem for Maryland is that although the freshmen -- especially Hipp -- have steadily improved as the conference season has gone on, the upperclassmen for the most part have either leveled off or dropped a notch or two. Because recruiting tailed off during the probation period, the Terps are virtually devoid of ACC-level sophomores and juniors.

McLinton has become one of the better players in the ACC and seems to play better as the competition gets tougher. But senior forward Evers Burns of Woodlawn has been inconsistent, and senior center Chris Kerwin, who has been booed at home, recently was replaced by Lucas.

"It's been pretty disappointing," said Burns, who remains the team's leading scorer and rebounder based mostly on his play against non-conference competition. "We've had so many tough games. We're pretty close. We've got to get over this hump."

The best Maryland realistically can hope for now is a .500 record and a bid to the National Invitation Tournament, but the Terps need to beat the Wolfpack tomorrow and Clemson at home Saturday to keep their chances alive. Their final two regular-season games are on the road, at Duke (March 3) and at Virginia (March 6).

Maryland probably needs to finish at least .500 to get a bid to the NIT, and maybe a game over. With the chance that they will have to play in the preliminary game of the ACC tournament (between the eighth- and ninth-place teams) for the second straight year, the Terps would have to win three of the last four regular-season games to help their postseason situation.

"I think the NIT would be good for our team," said Williams. "Look at what happened to Virginia last year. They won the NIT and got off to a great start this year. It would be a reward for the guys who've been through some tough times the past three years and it would be a good experience for the younger guys."

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