Michigan wraps Terps in sweetness

March 25, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

DALLAS -- After beating Texas in the second round of the NCAA tournament last weekend, Michigan coach Steve Fisher preferred not to comment on Maryland's various yays and nays. "I haven't studied them enough on film," Fisher said. "Talk to me at the end of the week."

Yesterday, after putting his team through its last practice before tonight's Midwest Regional semifinal, Fisher was asked if he was ready now to assess the Terps. "Yes," he said, "and it's pretty simple. They're good. They've very impressive on film."

Next to him on the podium at Reunion Arena was his center, Juwan Howard, similarly sweet-talking the Sweet 16 Terps. "They're on a good roll, playing good ball," he said. "The only team that can stop them is a team like a Michigan."

Pleasant music to turtle ears, for sure. But you had to wonder: How much film of the Terps had Fisher and his Fab Five really watched?

Had they seen the second N.C. State game, in which the Terps scored 14 points in the first half? Had they seen the Virginia game in the ACC tournament, played just two weeks ago, in which every Terp except Joe Smith basically didn't show up?

Did they know that the Terps had lost eight of 12 games coming into the tournament? That things got so bad at one point that coach Gary Williams privately admitted that an NIT bid would be an acceptable ending to the season?

Did they know that the Terps they had watched on film, the ones who blasted Saint Louis and Massachusetts last weekend in Wichita, Kan., bore little resemblance to the entertaining but erratic Terps who went 16-11 before the tournament?

"All I know," Fisher said, "is they're dangerous right now."

Certainly, the Terps were nothing if not dangerous last weekend, shooting 59 percent in eliminating two higher-seeded teams. But who will show up tonight? The shiny, improbable Wichita Terps? Or the more pedestrian regular-season model?

If it's the new version, the Terps could easily beat Michigan and play again Sunday for a berth in the F-F-Final Four. As remarkable as the Fabs are, three years of living up to their legend clearly has worn them down. (And keep in mind that they rarely play against a Terps-like pressing defense in the Big Ten, where only Iowa and Ohio State press full court.)

But if the old Terps show up tonight, well, they'll always have Wichita.

Williams insisted yesterday that the new Terps were the real Terps -- and tonight's Terps.

"I think [Wichita] is the way we can play," he said. "I don't think we played over our heads there. We've been consistent on defense all year. We're a tough team defensively. And the big difference offensively [in Wichita] was we shot well. But we did that because we showed patience, ran our offense and took good shots, which we hadn't always been doing."

Still, Williams would never admit he expected to see what happened in Wichita, certainly not this year. How could he? The Terps went 2-5 during the season against ranked teams, and the two they beat (Georgetown and Georgia Tech) later fell out of the top 25. Yet they hammered two ranked teams in Wichita.

Williams tried to make sense of it yesterday. "We hit a wall as we got into the ACC season," he said. "We started out so well that making the [NCAA] tournament became a goal, so we wound up feeling a lot of pressure and playing a lot of big games with tournament implications. That didn't help a team so young. But once we made it, we relaxed. And between that and a year of experience, things came together."

Did they ever. In Wichita, all five starters and reserve Mario Lucas simultaneously played their best ball of the season. Duane Simpkins ran the offense like a pro. Exree Hipp went nuts. Johnny Rhodes resembled Magic Johnson with his rebounds, assists and points. Sensational Freshman Joe Smith was, well, sensational. Keith Booth went to war, as always.

To expect another weekend of such fortune, of absolutely everything going right, might be asking too much. Shoot, there's no doubt it's asking too much. But the Terps don't care now.

"When you're 18, you think you can do anything," Fisher said. "You learn a lot by the time you're 20 or 21, but that kind of no-look confidence can help you when you're 18, as long as you're good. And Maryland is good."

Fisher knows all about the blind confidence of youth, having coached five freshman starters to the NCAA championship game two years ago. The Fabs have a certain world-weariness about them now, almost as if they're pros. They talk about using their experience against the Maryland whippersnappers.

The Terps? Well, for better or worse, they've got that bug-eyed look right now. They believe. They couldn't care less that it's crazy, that it doesn't make sense that they're still in and North Carolina and Kentucky are out. Such ironies have occupied their minds for approximately one second.

"When I went home last week, people said to me, 'Well, you

played two great games, but it's time for your Cinderella season to end,' " Hipp said. "But the way I see it, we just peaked at the right time."

Did they?


For updates of tonight's Maryland-Michigan game, call Sundial, The Baltimore Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford HTC County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6104 after you hear the greeting.

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