Terps still could use big man on campus

KEN ROSENTHAL

April 14, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Gary Williams sat in the first row at last week's Capital Classic and proudly noted that Maryland had two recruits playing in the high school all-star game -- the same number as Duke. Keith Booth and Joe Smith indeed represent major coups for Maryland. The problem is, such players are the norm in the ACC.

That's the maddening part of Williams' rebuilding program -- he's playing catch-up in the nation's best conference. Today is the day Booth officially joins the fold, signing a letter of intent. Smith and Nick Bosnic signed last fall. Williams has every right to pump his fist in joy, but his excitement is quickly tempered.

NCAA champion North Carolina loses only one starter (George Lynch), and gains perhaps the nation's top player (Jerry Stackhouse) and big man (Rasheed Wallace). Some compare Stackhouse to Michael Jordan, but he's more like Lynch with a jump shot. Wallace must qualify academically, but if he doesn't, Dean Smith still has that Montross guy for another year.

Duke, too, will suffer little drop off, losing Bobby Hurley and Thomas Hill, but gaining two more big men (Greg Newton and Joey Beard) to go with 6-foot-11 sophomore Cherokee Parks. Newton is billed as a Christian Laettner clone, if such a monster exists. Replacing Hurley will be impossible, but a third recruit (Jeff Capel) might start at the point as a freshman.

Those are just two teams, but you get the picture. Johnny Rhodes, a 6-4 guard, will return as Maryland's leading scorer and rebounder from a team that went 2-14 in the conference last season. The only true big man in 1993-94 will be 6-10 Nemanja Petrovic, a project who missed nearly his entire freshman year with a stress fracture in his leg.

The Terps will be more athletic next season, but they won't win more than six ACC games without a legitimate center. At this late date, the only way Williams can get one is by signing a junior-college star with two years of eligibility remaining. No doubt he's exploring that option, even though such a player must carry a 2.0 GPA to play immediately in Division I.

As it stands, Williams can go with two starting lineups -- one with Petrovic, the other with Duane Simpkins, both problematic. If Petrovic is the center, Smith would be the power forward and Booth the small forward. Exree Hipp would play shooting guard, and Rhodes -- like Walt Williams before him -- would be forced to move to the point.

The other lineup, with Simpkins at the point, would shift the 6-9 Smith to center and the 6-7 Booth to power forward. Rhodes would remain at shooting guard, Hipp at small forward. The team would be dangerously small, but Williams does not seem overly concerned. He once led Boston College to the Sweet 16 without a starter over 6-6.

"We're not as small as people think, unless you compare us to Carolina -- but everyone is small compared to Carolina," Williams said. "There are going to be some tough nights. We'll pay the price once in a while for being young. But I don't think we'll get pounded."

Smith needs to add bulk to his 230-pound frame, but at the Capital Classic, he kept his feet moving and hustled for every rebound. He figures to offset the loss of Evers Burns, and Booth offers a dimension all his own. He's probably best suited for small forward, but Williams likely envisions him playing the power spot as well.

Booth is a coach's dream, a post-up player who runs the floor and passes like a guard. Best of all, he gets to the foul line. It drove Williams crazy that Rhodes took only 66 foul shots last season -- 86 fewer than Kevin McLinton. The best teams are always at the line.

By that standard and others, the Terps are still a year away, not that anyone will enjoy playing them next season. "We'll be pressing, trying to run after scores as well as missed shots, being aggressive in our half-court defense, trapping a little bit," Williams said. "It's a style where you use eight or nine players. You have to."

Forward Mario Lucas will fit into that scheme, as might Bosnic, a 6-7 shooter. The rotation will be composed almost entirely of freshmen and sophomores. Rhodes averaged 14 points last season, Hipp 11.3. They're going from freshmen to go-to guys, almost overnight.

Williams loves being the underdog, and even with Smith and Booth, he'll continue in that role. The night of the NCAA final, he noticed a 7-1 player cheering from the Carolina bench. It was Serge Zwikker, a prep school classmate of Hipp's. Williams longs for such a player. At Carolina, Serge Zwikker was a redshirt freshman.

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