No. 7 Terps contend with high expectations THE STATE OF BASKETBALL -- MARYLAND

November 20, 1994|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Staff Writer

COLLEGE PARK -- During the first half of a recent exhibition game at Cole Field House, some fans began to show their frustration with the effort being made by the Maryland basketball team.

They didn't boo or scream at the Terrapins, who were leading the Polish National team by just a handful of points at the time. They fidgeted and murmured, wondering when -- not if -- the blowout was going to come.

"Last year people were happy just when we were in the game," junior forward Exree Hipp said after what turned out to be an easy victory. "This year they want to see a lot of fast breaks and dunks. They want to see us put the other team away early."

It comes with the territory, which for Maryland means going from being one of college basketball's have-nots for the better part of a decade to one of its haves, from a team picked to finish seventh in its own league one year to seventh in the country the next.

It comes with having Joe Smith, virtually unknown going into his freshman year and recently chosen a preseason first-team All-American as a sophomore. It comes with being the only at-large team to make last year's NCAA tournament with 16 wins, and being picked by some to become a Final Four contender this season.

"It's definitely a lot harder when people's expectations are so high -- they're tough to reach," said Maryland coach Gary Williams, who enters his sixth season at his alma mater with a new seven-year contract and more pressure than at any time in his previous 16 years as a Division I coach.

The Terps will open their 1994-95 season tomorrow in the Maui Invitational against host school Chaminade, a Division II team. But they likely will play No. 9 Indiana on Tuesday and possibly No. 16 Michigan -- the team that eliminated Maryland in last year's NCAA Sweet 16 -- on Wednesday.

"We'll see where we are after we play over in Hawaii," said Williams, who is just as curious as anyone else. "If we lose a couple, everyone will forget about the rankings."

Said Smith: "We're still putting the pieces together. But we have to put them together a lot quicker than we did last year when we weren't picked that high. We want to start out where we were at the end of last season. Right now, I don't feel we're there yet."

Especially in their half-court offense and defense, two areas the Terps will certainly be tested in by the ever-patient and always tenacious Hoosiers. Williams was not particularly happy with every aspect of their game in Wednesday night's 124-105 exhibition victory over Verich Reps.

But Maryland has shown signs during the preseason of being a deeper and more polished team than it was a year ago. While 6-foot-8, 233-pound reserve forward Mario Lucas has apparently made a quantum leap between his sophomore and junior years, giving the Terps both a wide body and a good shooter off the bench, each of the starters has raised his respective game a notch.

"Everybody has gotten better, but we have to get better as a team," said Williams, who has worked with a number of combinations during the preseason, and also found time for freshmen Rodney Elliott of Dunbar and Sarunas Jasikevicius. "There's a tendency when people tell you that you're good to think you don't have to work as hard."

Hipp has added 20 pounds of muscle and some much-needed moxie to what had been a soft perimeter-oriented game; sophomore forward Keith Booth of Baltimore has expanded his offensive repertoire with some feathery jumpers and a more consistent free throw.

Junior guards Duane Simpkins and Johnny Rhodes seem to be making the open jumper, which will prevent teams from collapsing on Smith. Smith, too, will free himself of the double-teams he faced during the second half of last season by pulling up and hitting 15- to 18-foot jumpers, with the occasional three-pointer thrown in.

"Joe's one of the best [outside] shooters on this team, and if he hits that shot, it's going to make everyone else harder to cover," said Simpkins.

Yet as much as the still-young Terps have to work on their developing skills, they also will have to deal with the hype that follows all the way to Hawaii. With all the home games already sold out, with more media exposure than they have ever faced, proving everyone right instead of proving everyone wrong will be the most difficult task of all.

"It's a lot of pressure," said Rhodes. "But you can't let the ranking get to your head. We have to go out and have the same attitude that we did when we weren't in this predicament."

In this case, the malaprop fits. But it's a nice, uh, predicament to be in. If the Terps struggle early, it will be interesting to see whose patience wears out first -- Williams' or the fans'.

Not that Maryland's fans will ever be as avid as Arkansas', or as unforgiving as Kentucky's, but they will be harder to please than ever before. Just making the NCAA tournament is no longer good enough.

"I think we've got to come out and win every game," said Hipp. "Not so much as make a fashion statement by beating teams by 30 or 40 points, we just have to win."

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