Maryland's chances? Fabulous

March 23, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

The Big Question is this: Can Maryland's baby-faced, out-of-nowhere Terps really compete with those cultural icons from the Big Ten, Michigan's Fab (Almost) Five?

Sure, they can.

As a matter of fact, you can count on Friday's NCAA Midwest Regional semifinal going right down to the wire -- as just about every Michigan game does.

The Fabs are more physical, experienced and accomplished, yet they hold such advantages in almost every game and rarely win without sweating. They have the maddening tendency to play down to the level of inferior opponents. They're convinced they can win in the end no matter how poorly they play.

Sure, they're too cocky for their own good, but, with a 12-2 record in the NCAA tournament in the past three years (8-0 in games decided by five points or fewer), they walk the walk.

They sure don't make their lives any easier, though. They're probably double-digit better than the delicately balanced Terps, who require that everything goes right, but, knowing this, they're bound to take the Terps lightly.

Too lightly.

Michigan coach Steve Fisher will show his players the Maryland-UMass film and implore them to respect the Terps, but you know that deep down they're going to see the Terps (not incorrectly) as a young, inconsistent, beatable team that had one great game.

Hello, nail-biter.

In fact, the Terps could win the thing if the Fabs come out as bored and uninspired as they did against Pepperdine in the first round. It's not even a stretch once you study the matchups, which shape up a lot more evenly than you would think.

Sure, it's always possible that the Terps could revert to the form in which they finished the regular season with eight losses in 12 games, including the debacle at North Carolina State in which they scored 14 points in a clueless first half. That was just 28 days ago, people.

But the Terps have turned a major corner mentally. After UMass, they think they can do anything, certainly beat this Chris Webber-less, slightly worn out, slightly overrated version of the Fabs. And they're halfway there if they believe they can do it.

If Gary Williams does his job this week, he will persuade his young players that taking on Michigan is a lot less frightening than it sounds. He will show them just how evenly they match up. Check it out:

* Joe Smith against Juwan Howard. Terrific matchup. Howard is older, but Smith is quicker, and he feeds on slower centers. Smith is going to be the better player one day. Maybe he already is.

* Duane Simpkins against Dugan Fife. Fife is the weakest member of Michigan's starting five. Simpkins is the Terps' most improved player since December. No worse than a draw for the Terps.

* Johnny Rhodes against Jalen Rose. Another terrific matchup. Both players do everything. Give Rose a slight edge on experience.

* Keith Booth and Exree Hipp against Ray Jackson and Jimmy King. Booth and King are disadvantages against no one. Jackson and Hipp are erratic, but capable of brilliance. There could be some switching here.

Amazing how close it handicaps, huh? And there's no mismatch lurking on the bench. Neither team has much depth -- not nearly as much as, say, Arkansas.

But of course, with the Fabs there is always a decisive intangible you have to factor in: their uncanny ability to win in the end, no matter how uninspired they play.

"We're not going to rattle, no matter what," Rose said. "We've been down the road once too often."

True enough. Of their 14 NCAA games, three have been blowouts: early-round wins over outmatched Coastal Carolina and East Tennessee State and the 1992 title game loss to Duke. Otherwise, the Fabs have played four overtime games and four others decided by five points or fewer -- and won them all.

The only close game in which they faltered was last year's title game against North Carolina, which they lost by six.

So, while they have struggled to beat such inferior competition as Texas, Pepperdine, UCLA, Oklahoma State and George Washington, they always have found a way to advance.

"They're an amazing team that way," said Texas coach Tom Penders after they beat his team by five Saturday. "They have a tremendous amount of confidence in close games. They just know they can get it done."

Maryland's starters have never experienced the crucible of a close tournament game. Advantage, Michigan. But the Fabs are due to get surprised after living dangerously for so long, and you could argue that the ACC-tested Terps just might have the pedigree to pull it off.

In any case, the outcome figures to come down to whether the Fabs take the Terps seriously enough instead of looking ahead to Arkansas and whether they have any magic tricks left for another close game.

Maryland needs to show up and play well, but, basically, it's all up to Michigan. And that's not necessarily a bad thing for the Terps.

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