Maryland grabs hold of poll

January 18, 1994|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Staff Writer

COLLEGE PARK -- The University of Maryland's long road back from college basketball oblivion officially ended yesterday, when the Terrapins were ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time in more than eight years.

With fewer than 10 of the 65 ballots remaining late Sunday night, Maryland (10-3) still found itself a handful of votes behind Boston College (11-4). But with a charge similar to the one they made Saturday at Wake Forest, the Terps climbed into the final spot.

"What it means is that we've played really good basketball the past couple of weeks," said coach Gary Williams, who became the fourth active Division I coach to put three different schools into the rankings. "It's hard for a team that hasn't been ranked in a while to get up there."

It marks the first time since the beginning of the 1985-86 season that a Maryland men's team has been nationally ranked. In what was then a Top 20 poll, the Terps were tied for 19th in preseason, got as high as 17th after the first week and then were knocked out after losing to Ohio State in Columbus on Nov. 30, 1985.

Though Maryland made the NCAA tournament that season under the soon-to-be-exiting Lefty Drie- sell, as well as under Bob Wade in 1987-88, and then played in the 1990 NIT in Williams' first season back at his alma mater, things deteriorated quickly. The shackles of a three-year NCAA probation and a two-year postseason tournament ban eventually wore down the Terps, who had losing records in each of the past two seasons.

"What happens here is that, after a while, the people around school develop a negative attitude -- that you can't compete with the North Carolinas and Dukes," said Williams. "The players start thinking that, too. You had to get it through their heads that we could. There were some times we couldn't. But I think this shows we can."

Said athletic director Andy Geiger: "The ranking is nice, but I'm really excited about the process. We're well-coached. The team plays extremely hard. Getting ranked is another step, but the goals here are higher."

Williams set this goal for his team during preseason practice. He put up a copy of Maryland's schedule,highlighted the seven opponents with Top 25 rankings and told his Terps that it was attainable. This team, made up almost exclusively of freshmen and sophomores, believed it was.

After opening the season with an 84-83,overtime upset of then-No. 15 Georgetown at the USAir Arena, the Terps were on the periphery of the Top 25. An 88-85 loss at Oklahoma the next week kept them out, and after a 94-80 loss on the road to then-No. 9 Massachusetts on Dec. 23, they fell to as low as 58th among vote-getters.

But a 91-88 upset of then-12th-ranked Georgia Tech in Atlanta on Jan. 4 started Maryland on its long climb back. That victory and a five-point loss to then-second-ranked North Carolina at home four days later, brought the Terps up to 28th. Then came last week's victories over Florida State and the Demon Deacons, who were coming off an upset of Duke in Durham.

"We've worked hard," sophomore forward Exree Hipp said yesterday before practice. "We deserve this."

Maryland was one of two teams to move into the Top 25 for the first time this season and the first time after a long dry spell. St. Louis University, which at 14-0 is the only other unbeaten Division I team besides second-ranked UCLA,moved into the No. 23 spot. It was the first time the Billikens have been ranked since 1964-65,when they ranked fourth.

While there was some reshuffling at the bottom of the Top 25, there was even more at the top. The Tar Heels and Blue Devils, ranked first and second last week, respectively, slipped to fourth and fifth with defeats. Kansas and UCLA moved up to first and second, with Arkansas holding onto No. 3.

Just for the Terps to be in such company is a significant accomplishment. But Williams, no stranger to coaching nationally ranked teams while at Boston College and Ohio State, knows how fleeting this moment in the spotlight can be.

Just to make sure his players didn't spent the next few days with their heads in a cloud, Williams showed them a tape of Saturday's first half against the Demon Deacons, when Maryland shot 25 percent and was lucky to be down by only one.

"When we got into the film room, we didn't look like a Top 50 team," said sophomore point guard Duane Simpkins. "He's making a conscious effort to keep our feet on the ground. I think it [being ranked] makes our progress more visible."

The schedule is certainly in Maryland's favor to stay in the rankings for at least a short time. The Terrapins, who are in a four-way tie for first place in the ACC, don't play again until Saturday, when they are host to North Carolina State. After that, their next game is also at home, against Clemson.

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