Terps cooking up a sweet future

March 24, 1994|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Staff Writer

COLLEGE PARK DEREK TONEY AND CHAD CAPELLMAN CONTRIBUTED TO THIS ARTICLE. — COLLEGE PARK -- The basketball season was supposed to be over by now at Maryland, the excitement of the team's first winning record in three years beginning to wane. The school's first NCAA tournament appearance in six years was supposed to be only a cameo.

But the season continues, with the 10th-seeded Terrapins having left for Dallas last night for tomorrow night's Sweet 16 party against third-seeded Michigan at Reunion Arena. And the hysteria builds, with phone calls from coaches of potential recruits, as well as from potential donors, both wanting to know where and when they can sign on the dotted line.

The impact from the team's first visit to the regional semifinals since the 1984-85 season will be immediate. But the long-range effect should even be greater. He has thought only "fleetingly" about the possibilities, but Maryland coach Gary Williams said -- earlier this week: "The exposure you get from being in the Sweet 16 is incredible, especially compared to not being there."

This will be the third trip to the Sweet 16 for Williams, but it should have more significance to the long-dormant Maryland program than it did to Boston College, where he coached from 1982 to 1986. In that case, Williams inherited a successful team ++ from Tom Davis that had been to the final eight and Sweet 16 the previous two years.

In this case, Williams inherited a program in disarray, one that would be banned by the NCAA from postseason play for two years and television appearances for one. In his first two seasons after coming from Ohio State, Williams lost an all-star roster of recruits to other schools. The blue-chip players weren't the only ones to take their contributions elsewhere.

"Maryland's always been a great product," said assistant coach Art Perry, who came here from Old Dominion four years ago. "But the sanctions had sort of put Maryland on the back burner. Now, with the sanctions gone and Maryland being back in the NCAA tournament, the product is back in the limelight."

Perry knows how the spotlight of the NCAA Tournament can help a program, especially at a state school. As an assistant at Rutgers in 1976, Perry saw how the Scarlet Knights went from being a nice, little team in New Jersey to a burgeoning national power. Only a poor decision by administrators not to join a fledgling league called the Big East prevented Rutgers from maintaining that position.

Maryland is even in a better situation. Given the national respect of the Atlantic Coast Conference, the school's proximity to high school hotbeds along the East Coast and the program's tradition, the Terps might use this season's unexpected success as a springboard back to the top of the league and a regular spot in the Top 25.

"It tends to speed the timetable up a little," said Duke athletic director Tom Butters, who watched the Blue Devils emerge from similar slumber in the early '80s to become the first team to win back-to-back national championships since the UCLA dynasty. "It doesn't guarantee expediency, but it lends itself to it. It gives you not only visibility, but credibility."

Already, the basketball office at Maryland has received calls from the coaches of three or four high school juniors who suddenly are considering the Terps.

"It's not like the typical letter you get from a kid in Wisconsin who wants to send a tape," said Perry, the man credited with bringing Joe Smith to Maryland. "They're all good players."

The television exposure is mostly positive, but having four sophomores and three freshmen among the Terps' first eight players might deter some recruits who figure their court time could be limited. However, Perry said: "The guys who are underclassmen [in high school] now won't be coming here until our guys are juniors and seniors."

With three scholarships available for the spring signing period -- the Terps had only one entering the fall period, but John Walsh and Nemanja Petrovic transferred -- Maryland's march to the Sweet 16 could not have come at a better time. Among the players interested in Maryland is Dunbar forward Rodney Elliott.

"It has definitely caught my eye," said Elliott, a first-team All-Metro selection. "It must be fun being in the Sweet 16 and having all the media attention centered around you."

Elliott, who helped Dunbar, ranked No. 5 nationally by USA Today, to the state 2A championship and the area's No. 2 ranking, said he has narrowed his choices to Maryland, North Carolina State and Clemson.

"The whole Baltimore community is excited about the University of Maryland basketball team," said freshman forward Keith Booth, a former teammate of Elliott's who went home Sunday after getting back from Wichita, Kan. "Something like this is going to help us get quality athletes. I can't mention anybody by name, but I know guys who are interested in coming here."

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