Laid-back Lucas takes game up strong for Terps

January 26, 1994|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Staff Writer

COLLEGE PARK -- He always has been something of a question mark on the Maryland basketball team. Fans wondered why a player of his size was content taking 15-foot jump shots instead of taking the ball to the basket. Teammates wondered why he rarely showed in games what he did in practice. And the coaches wondered if what they saw in him in high school down in Memphis, Tenn., was ever going to come out during his career as a Terrapin.

And nearly everyone who watched Mario Lucas play during his first 1 1/2 seasons at Maryland has, at one time or another, asked the same thing: Does he care?

"I'm pretty much a laid-back person, and in high school I could be that way and still be a dominating player," Lucas said Monday before practice. "Coach [Gary] Williams will always tell me I need to show more emotion. He'll tell me that when I'm out there sometimes, it doesn't seem that I want to be out there. At this hTC level, being laid-back is not the way to be. You have to be more assertive and have more emotion."

After showing only snippets of potential as a freshman -- 10 points against West Virginia and North Carolina, 10 rebounds and nine points in the regular-season finale against Virginia -- the pattern continued this season. But it wasn't until last Saturday, during a 102-70 blowout over North Carolina State, that the 6-foot-8 1/2 , 230-pound forward finally showed he had something many thought he lacked: heart.

Coming in after freshman starter Keith Booth fell into early foul trouble, and coming in later after freshman star Joe Smith got poked in the eye, Lucas played harder and more productively than he ever had as a Terp. He finished with 16 points and seven rebounds in only 14 minutes by using his new-found strength instead of relying on his somewhat unreliable jump shot. In a game that saw Smith put up his typically incredible numbers (24 points, 13 rebounds, four blocks and five steals), Lucas stood out.

"He's a lot bigger than he was last year, and that's one of the adjustments you make," Williams said of Lucas, who came in 1 1/2 inches shorter and 25 pounds lighter than he is now. "This is a new thing for him to be a strong player. He was just a jump shooter in high school. You never lose the ability to shoot. But if you can combine the two, it's got to make you a better player."

Now comes another question: Can Lucas do it again tonight at Cole Field House when 18th-ranked Maryland (11-3, 4-1 in the Atlantic Coast Conference) plays host to Clemson (10-7, 1-4)? Unlike the Wolfpack's frontcourt, which was bigger but slower than the Terps', the Tigers boast one of the country's top centers in Sharone Wright as well as one of the ACC's quicker forwards in Devin Gray of Baltimore. Lucas is aware he will be needed.

"My role on the team is to come in and play good defense and rebound, my role isn't to score," said Lucas, who is averaging 5.5 points and 3.7 rebounds. "But I know that if I'm aggressive, my points will come. Against a team like Clemson that's big and quick, I think I can take some of the pressure off Joe."

Getting comfortable with his role has never been easy for Lucas. Back at Fairley High School, Lucas played in the shadow of one of the nation's top shooting guards, Duece Ford, now a freshman at Memphis State. It didn't help that Ford's father coached the team, or that Lucas' father, Charles, felt that his son should be scoring more than 14 points as a senior. "He was a scoring machine," Charles Lucas said from the family's home in Memphis Monday night.

Things did not go easily, or well, for Lucas as a Terps freshman. The adjustment to a large campus on the periphery of a major city was difficult for an 18-year-old who was more than a little introverted and used to a slower-pace lifestyle.

And then there was his playing time, which fluctuated in 23 games between not at all and starting twice when senior Chris Kerwin slumped.

"Last year was really frustrating for me," said Lucas, who wound up averaging 3.5 points and 2.5 rebounds in a little over 10 minutes a game. "I could hold my emotions to myself when we were losing, but now that we're winning, there's nothing to be sad about."

With the help of suitemates and fellow reserves Kurtis Shultz and Wayne Bristol, Lucas has started coming out of his shell. With the help of Smith, Lucas sees what a combination of playing hard and with emotion can do. And he has finally come to the realization that the harsh words directed at him last year by Williams were not meant to tear him down, as often was the case in high school, but to raise his game.

"A lot of guys coming out of high school, not just Mario, feel the minutes are going to be there when they get to college," said Williams. "They have to realize that when they get out in the real world, nobody's going to give them anything if they don't work hard. If you play defense and rebound, you're going to get to play."

Lucas, who recently changed his major from business to education and would like to become a coach someday, admits that he was a little intimidated when he got his first taste of the ACC. Now he would like to turn that around.

Last Saturday against N.C. State might have been the start. Lucas hopes that tonight against Clemson is merely the continuation.

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