Terps' Lucas pursues level best

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

College Park -- His role has been defined, and so has his upper body. For the first time in his University of Maryland basketball career, Mario Lucas not only knows where he is going, but how to get there as well.

The self-doubts that often accompanied the 6-foot-8, 235-pound junior onto the court the past two seasons and led to moments of self-destruction seemingly have been erased, replaced by a newfound confidence that is matched by the strong belief his coaches and teammates have in him.

"Last year was pretty much up and down," Lucas said last week before practice. "Some nights I'd play a lot, and some nights I wouldn't. I couldn't adjust to that. This year, I've got to be more consistent. I've got to perform."

The erratic nature in which coach Gary Williams used him last season was mostly due to the player's own inconsistency. There were more than a few games when Lucas displayed a deft outside touch, especially for a big man. But when his shot wasn't falling or when he wasn't able to get open, Lucas was better off on the bench.

Williams and Lucas expect that will change this season. Though he still is more comfortable facing the basket and pulling up for mid-range jumpers, Lucas appears to have added a couple of post-up moves to his repertoire. He likely never will possess the quickness of All-America sophomore center Joe Smith or the explosiveness of sophomore forward Keith Booth, but Lucas is not lagging that far behind anymore.

"He played well in the NCAA tournament, especially against UMass," Williams said. "That was a great confidence-builder. He now knows he can play well at that level. This summer helped him, too. He played on an ACC all-star team in South America, and it showed he can fit in with other good players. And when we went to France, he played against older, more physical players and held his own."

Said Lucas: "I got a lot more experience playing over the summer. It's a good thing to play against older guys. As a whole, this summer benefited me and the team."

It was against Massachusetts that Lucas hit the biggest shot of his career and probably the most important of Maryland's Cinderella season. The shot -- a three-pointer -- came moments after Lucas had been blocked by 7-footer Marcus Camby, who then dunked over Duane Simpkins to put the Terrapins behind by 10 early in the second half. But the three-pointer sparked Maryland's comeback and led to a 95-87 upset victory.

"I still hear about it," said Lucas, who finished with 10 points and four rebounds in 21 minutes, the kind of numbers Williams would like to see from him this season. "That was fun, to get the game turned around. But this is a new season, and when we play them again [on Dec. 10 at the Baltimore Arena], I'm sure they're going to be hungry."

That sequence was typical of Lucas' sophomore season. One game, he would score 16 points and grab seven rebounds against North Carolina State, but, the next, he would go 0-for-8 and score only one point against Clemson. He wound up averaging 5.4 points and 3.6 rebounds in 16 minutes a game and shooting a shade less than 40 percent from the field.

What Lucas has shown in the first week of practice raises expectations, not to mention a few eyebrows. In the team's first intrasquad scrimmage Saturday at Cole Field House, Lucas helped his teams to a pair of 20-minute victories with impressive numbers: 30 points on 11-for-17 shooting, along with seven rebounds.

"He's extremely important to our team, more than most people think," said Simpkins. "He works Joe probably tougher than anybody in practice. He's not really like a sixth man. He's pretty much like a starter."

Lucas weighs 5 pounds less than he did as a sophomore, but he has traded baby fat for muscle in the hours spent over the summer in the weight room. Though he remains pigeon-toed, Lucas doesn't appear as plodding as he did when running in the past. And his hands seem to be softer, but it's probably more the result of Lucas' becoming surer of himself.

Because of his outside shooting, Lucas gives Williams some flexibility along Maryland's undersized front line. He can play Lucas at power forward with Smith and Booth or at center alongside Booth and freshman Rodney Elliott. The one thing that concerns Williams is a tendency by Lucas to revert back to his past, shooting first and thinking later.

"He's going to get his shots, but he's got to be a little more selective," said Williams. "I want him to shoot when he's open."

Asked about Lucas' playing more consistent minutes this season, Williams said: "He's earned that. We'll be a better team if guys like Joe Smith and Keith Booth can down their minutes a little."

Lucas always has been one of the most reserved players on the Maryland team, a shy country guy from Memphis, Tenn. He is still reserved and polite, but the stern, sometimes sad, game face Lucas seemed to wear is slowly coming down in less serious moments.

Smith's arrival last season helped, because of his own countrified roots and the way he jokingly called Lucas "Ice" for the treatment he needed for an assortment of bumps and bruises. But mostly it's the simple process of maturing.

"I've grown up a lot," said Lucas, "I'm trying to show my emotions more. I wouldn't do that before, but being around Coach has changed that."

A lot has changed for Lucas. His role. His body. And, mostly, his direction.

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