Yes, Mich. knows who Smith is

March 26, 1994|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Staff Writer

DALLAS -- One is a freshman who began the season with barely a ripple of buildup and is now being called the best first-year college basketball player in the country.

The other is a junior who has spent most of his career going relatively unnoticed, except by his own teammates and coaches, but has used this year's NCAA tournament as his launching pad.

Until last night's Midwest Regional semifinal at Reunion Arena, Joe Smith of Maryland and Juwan Howard of Michigan had met only once -- a chance encounter at the hotel in Wichita where both teams were staying last week.

"It was in the elevator," Smith recalled here Thursday. "It was more a hi-bye thing."

Did Howard know who he was?

"Yeah," Smith said with a laugh. "He knew who I was."

By now, nearly everyone with a passing interest in college basketball is familiar with Smith, the 6-foot-10, 220-pound center who led the Terps from next-to-last in the Atlantic Coast Conference to their first Sweet 16 appearance in nine years.

And by averaging more than 25 points and 10 rebounds in Maryland's first two NCAA tournament games, Smith reaffirmed the respect and attention he received during the regular season, when he was named first team All-ACC and honorable mention All-America.

"Joe Smith is good," Michigan coach Steve Fisher said of this year's ACC Freshman of the Year and the national Freshman of the Year by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association. "You can forget the freshman label. He's good."

As good as Smith was against Saint Louis (29 points, 15 rebounds) and Massachusetts (22 points, five rebounds), Howard was even better in the opening rounds. In a 78-74 overtime victory over 14th-seeded Pepperdine, the 6-9, 250-pound center made 12 of 17 shots in a 28-point, nine-rebound performance. In an 84-79 victory over sixth-seeded Texas, Howard scored a career-high 34 points and had a career-high 18 rebounds.

"Juwan is like our Rock of Gibraltar," Fisher said earlier this week.

For Howard, it is all about opportunity. During his first two years at Michigan, Howard was often the third or fourth scoring option, with Chris Webber, Jalen Rose and sometimes Jimmy King as the principal scoring weapons for the Wolverines.

But this season, with Webber gone to the NBA, Howard emerged as Michigan's leading scorer (20.4 a game) and rebounder (8.6). Unlike Rose, whose performances fluctuated with his mood swings, Howard was steady, scoring in double figures in every game he played.

"Juwan's really stepped us his game with Webber no longer there," said Maryland coach Gary Williams. "He's become the focal point of their offense. He's the guy who gets them together when things aren't going well. I'm really impressed with his leadership."

Said King: "I might be biased, but I think he's the best big man in the country."

But Howard's season barely got noticed outside Ann Arbor. In the Big Ten, Glenn Robinson of Purdue was becoming national Player of the Year and Rashard Griffith, Wisconsin's 7-foot freshman, got more headlines. Outside the league, most of the attention was going to the nation's freshman centers, much of it to Smith.

"I love competing, but I don't care much about the attention," said Howard, who will certainly be a first-round draft pick if he decides to skip his senior year. "But I don't get into it when people ask, 'Who's the best big man in the country?' It's like who's the best team. Everyone has their opinion."

Williams compares Howard's versatility to that of former Duke star Christian Laettner. Not only can he score inside, but Howard also can shoot outside. Not only does he play solid post defense, but he also can pass. And Williams is mindful of how Maryland had problems stopping Laettner.

But the Terps didn't have a player like Smith guarding Laettner, or a big man that opposing defenses were geared to stop. Smith's best games this season came against players who were either smaller, like Saint Louis forward Donnie Dobbs, or slower, like North Carolina's Eric Montross. What Smith didn't want to do was turn last night into a nationally televised game of one-on-one.

"It's not Joe Smith against Juwan Howard," he said. "It's Maryland against Michigan."

TERPS UPDATES

For updates of last night'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 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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