In Final Four analysis, Maryland has clear shot NCAA TOURNAMENT THE ROAD STARTS HERE

March 16, 1995|By JOHN EISENBERG

SALT LAKE CITY -- Their draw is sweet. Their coach is back. Their franchise center is still in uniform.

They're playing the first two rounds in this scrubbed-clean city that serves as the home of the Mormon Church, which was founded by . . . Joseph Smith. Is that enough of an omen for you?

It could take years for the Maryland Terrapins to find themselves back in such favorable circumstances in the NCAA tournament.

Making the Final Four isn't a stretch of the imagination this year. Not at all.

Gonzaga, Oregon, Connecticut, UCLA. That's the Terps' road to Seattle, most likely.

Not easy, but doable.

Very doable.

If the right Terps show up, that is.

Which is a big if.

This is a team that hasn't beaten a Top 25 opponent on any court other than the one at Cole Field House, a team that has registered barely better than .500 for the past month, a team that lately has exhibited an alarming dependence on Joe Smith and the kind of chronic inconsistency that can ruin your postseason in a hurry.

Yet it is also a team capable of soaring heights. The caliber of the Terps' play in their loss to North Carolina in the semifinals of the ACC tournament just might be enough to carry them to Seattle. That blend of resourcefulness, balance, athleticism and Joe has a potency few teams can match.

This much is certain: The Terps will have no excuses if they don't make it.

Already, before the first dribble of tonight's first-round game against Gonzaga at the Huntsman Center, they have benefited from more good fortune than they ever could have expected.

Losing coach Gary Williams to pneumonia in the stretch run of the regular season was a rough break, but now he's back in time to give the players a huge emotional lift when they really need it. They're operating with a fresh, clean-slate mentality. They're ready to blow. Gonzaga is in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Bringing Joe Smith to the home of the Mormon Church for two rounds won't really make any difference, although, as one writer put it here yesterday, "Maybe he'll have a lot of fans."

Gonzaga coach Dan Fitzgerald said last night, "I would prefer that the original Joseph Smith was in town this weekend."

But the Terps' biggest break by far, of course, is getting to play in the West Regional, the weakest of the four. They can count their blessings at every stop on a conceivable road to Seattle:

* Instead of having to play a dangerous, half-court-oriented 14th seed such as Wisconsin-Green Bay (which upset Cal last year) in the first round, they get physically overmatched Gonzaga, in the tournament for the first time.

* Instead of a second-round game against a more accomplished sixth seed such as Georgetown or Tulsa (the latter upset UCLA last year), they're likely to get Oregon, which is in the tournament for the first time in 34 years. The Ducks are a rising Kansas clone coached by a former assistant to Roy Williams, but they're not the real thing.

* If the Terps make it to the regional next week in Oakland, Calif., hTC they'll probably play the weakest of the No. 2 seeds, Connecticut, in the semifinals. Though the Huskies are indisputably talented and have a better record than the Terps against Top 25 teams -- 6-3 to 4-5 -- they're haunted by postseason demons and are much more vulnerable than Arkansas, UMass and North Carolina, the other No. 2 seeds. No one wants Arkansas. Beating UMass two years in a row would be difficult for the Terps. Carolina? Enough, thank you.

The Terps gladly will take on UConn, which has no apparent antidote for Smith.

Top-seeded UCLA would be the Terps' opponent in the regional final -- if the upset-prone Bruins hold their seed, anything but a certainty. The Pac-10 is much improved this season, but you can be sure the Terps would relish a chance to match baskets with the fast-breaking Bruins. No intimidation there.

Yes, they'll have to play their best ball of the season to win four in a row. They'll have to avoid the problems that have bothered them lately: slack defense, sloppy ball-handling, silence from the guards for long stretches. The play of point guard Duane Simpkins, who runs the offense, will be critical.

But luck is luck, and the Terps' probable draw includes not one physical, defense-minded, walk-it-up opponent, the kind that has most bothered the Terps this season. Temple and Cincinnati are such teams that could end up playing the Terps if there are upsets, but Utah and Texas -- run-and-shoot teams -- are just as likely to show up somewhere.

Of course, the best news of all for the Terps is that they'll have the hands-down best player on the floor against everyone in the West except UCLA and Ed O'Bannon. That's a huge and obvious advantage that simply can't be emphasized enough.

There's no Jerry Stackhouse to hit to the late three out here, no Rasheed Wallace or Tim Duncan to make life tougher for Smith inside.

Smith has carried the Terps in important games all season, and, in this regional especially, he has a chance to carry them a long way.

Millions of dollars are riding on his performance, which, if exceptional, could push his pro stock even higher. That would probably mean the end of his career at Maryland, a possibility to which any realistic Terps fan should already be reconciled to.

This time next year, we could all be talking about the good ol' days when Joe was around and it was OK to think as big as big gets in the college game.

No mistake about it: The good ol' days are right now.

Tonight against Gonzaga. Saturday afternoon against Oregon. Next week's regional in Oakland.

A fabulous chance.

Terps teams have gone to the Final Eight twice before (in 1973 and 1975) and never made the Final Four.

With Smith looking at a $50 million temptation, this could be the Terps' best chance for years.

There'll be no solace taken if they don't make it, no "wait until next year" if the ending to this year is disappointing,

Right now is the best chance of all.

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