'94-95 squad could join Maryland's best of past TIP-TOP TERPS

March 09, 1995|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Staff Writer

If Maryland runs the table and wins this year's Atlantic Coast Conference tournament beginning at the Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum tomorrow night against Florida State, it seems likely to be compared with the school's top teams from other eras.

With the 1973-74 team of Tom McMillen, Len Elmore and John Lucas that lost in overtime in the ACC tournament final to North Carolina State, 103-100, in what might have been the greatest college basketball game. With the 1974-75 team, which lost McMillen and Elmore, added Brad Davis, won the ACC regular season and reached the final eight of the NCAA tournament.

With the 1979-80 team, which also won the ACC regular season behind Albert King, Buck Williams and Ernest Graham but lost a heartbreaker to Duke in the tournament final. And with the 1983-84 team, the first at Maryland to win the ACC tournament since 1958. Will these Terps be next?

They might, given their 23-6 regular-season record, their No. 10 ranking and a 12-4 ACC mark that helped create the only four-way tie for first in league history. But those who played for, played against, helped coach and even watched the Terps over the past 25 years are nearly unanimous in their opinion: This team isn't ready to be judged.

"This is a different era," said television analyst Billy Packer, who has been a part of ACC basketball since playing for Wake Forest in the early 1960s. "Those teams of the early '70s to early '80s had superior talent, but it was the experienced players those teams had that provided the nucleus for that great talent.

"Everyone talks about how great a player Joe [Smith] is. He is a great player, but he's only a sophomore. Those teams had great seniors. What Joe will be, players like McMillen and Elmore were already. If this team has Joe next year and two major recruits, maybe let's talk about it."

Neither Packer nor anyone else disputes the individual talent of this year's starting lineup: the above-the-rim skills of Exree Hipp, the lion's heart of Keith Booth, the all-court savvy of Johnny Rhodes, the blue-collar work ethic of Duane Simpkins. And then there's Smith, who might one day be considered the greatest Maryland player.

And, collectively, they might be better than any other Maryland team except for its predecessor from 21 years ago.

"This Maryland team gets down and dirty, and not in a negative sense," said Virginia coach Jeff Jones, who played against the 1979-80 team during his career as a Cavalier. "They just play really hard. It's a reflection of [coach Gary Williams'] personality."

"This team usually plays hard defensively for 40 minutes, and I hate to admit that's something we didn't always do," said Greg Manning, the junior shooting guard on the 1979-80 team and now an analyst on the team's radio broadcasts. "Player for player, it's probably equal."

The position-by-position breakdown doesn't favor this year's team compared with the 1973-74 team, which started a frontcourt of McMillen, Elmore and Owen Brown, a backcourt with Lucas and Mo Howard and had a bench that included Tom Roy, 6 feet 9.

It was a team that scored more than 100 points eight times, a school record. It was a team that set a single-season school rebounding record and out-rebounded its opponents by more than 15 a game. But it was a team, not unlike this one, that won the games it was supposed to and lost most of its big road games: by a point to defending national champion UCLA at Pauley Pavilion in the season opener, all three times to N.C. State and to UNC on the road.

"That was the year N.C. State finished something like 31-0 and beat UCLA [in the national semifinals]," said Maryland assistant Billy Hahn, a junior backup guard on that team and now, in Williams' absence, the interim coach this season.

Hahn also remembers something else about that season's Maryland team, which, after losing to the Wolfpack in the ACC tournament, declined an invitation to the National Invitation Tournament. It might be one of the other distinctions between the 1973-74 team, considered by many to be the best in school history, and this season's team.

"The one thing that stands out about that team compared to this one was its size," said Hahn. "We were big! You had McMillen at 6-11, Elmore at 6-9, and then you had Tom Roy and Owen Brown, who were both 6-9."

Said Elmore: "We had more size and more depth. But I believe the kids today are far better athletes than we were. As far as understanding the game and knowing how to play, I think we had the edge."

A more accurate comparison might be with the 1974-75 team. Without McMillen and Elmore, Lefty Driesell started three guards, Lucas, Howard and Davis, along with two forwards, Steve Sheppard and Roy. Many say this season's team really has three guards, a small forward in Booth and a power forward in Smith.

The presence of Smith, who reached 1,000 points and 500

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