It's a singular fact: Terps a plural entity NCAA TOURNAMENT

March 18, 1995|By JOHN EISENBERG

SALT LAKE CITY -- If the Maryland Terrapins were the one-man team that many in college basketball think they are, they might have cratered against Gonzaga in the first round of the NCAA tournament Thursday night.

If the Terps were the one-man team of "SportsCenter" legend, they'd be in big trouble today in the second round against Texas, a frantic, guard-oriented team that thrives on its opponents' inability to play defense 20 feet from the basket.

Joe Smith can't win the game out there.

And he couldn't do anything against Gonzaga.

But it didn't hurt the Terps that he was quiet Thursday night, and it probably won't hurt if he is somewhat quiet again today -- as long as his teammates continue to come through.

The fact is that the Terps can survive just fine against a lot of teams without a big game from Smith. In fact, they're going to need more big games from the players around Smith than from Smith himself if they're going to work their way deep into the tournament bracket.

Smith got them this far, yes, but balance and backcourts are the secret to success in the postseason.

Not that the Terps won't need a lot more from their All-America center than what they got Thursday night; they were lucky he threw in his clunker against overmatched Gonzaga. But the point is you can't beat Texas, Connecticut or UCLA with one player. These opponents are far too smart and multidimensional to let one player sink them. Remember what happened to Purdue and Glenn Robinson when they ran into Duke last year.

Gonzaga succeeded in showing the rest of the West Regional that Smith could be contained. A skinny-strong, Australian-reared center named Paul Rogers blocked Smith's shot, denied him the ball and beat him to the boards. Smith was a non-factor for the first time in his 62-game college career. (And he should review tapes of the game before making his decision about leaving school early. Rogers' physical, pro-style defense was effective.)

But the point is that the Terps used the occasion to show that they're a whole lot more than Smith.

When things got a little hairy, Duane Simpkins was clutch on offense and disruptive on defense. Exree Hipp, whose improvement is marked in the past month, showed a satchel of post-up moves and shut down Gonzaga's top scorer. Keith Booth was "immense" inside, said coach Gary Williams, with 14 rebounds. Johnny Rhodes contributed in a half-dozen ways, as usual. And the bench ran four-deep with solid games from Mario Lucas, Wayne Bristol, Matt Kovarik and Rodney Elliott.

"I think people understand now that we're more than one guy," Simpkins said.

That's debatable. Smith has received so much publicity and played so many fabulous games on national television that the Terps' image as a one-man team is indelibly set in many minds across the country.

"We hear it all the time," Booth said before practice yesterday. "I think we'll always hear it as long as Joe is here. But it doesn't bother us."

It doesn't bother them because it isn't true. Smith did carry the Terps in more than a few games this year -- at Duke and at home against Virginia, most notably -- but this is a team with five players with double-figure scoring averages.

Smith contributes roughly one-fourth of the points and rebounds, and one-fifth of the shots. That's a lot for one player, but a whole lot from the others.

"Anyone who spends all their time stopping Joe is going to get burned bad," Booth said.

"Gonzaga did a nice job on him and got beat by 24 points," Texas coach Tom Penders said yesterday, "which tells you all you need to know."

If ever there was an opponent requiring the Terps to be more than a one-man team, it is Penders' Runnin' Horns, who press and run for 40 minutes, utilize a 10-man rotation and rely heavily on their guards for all that they do.

True, the hole-in-the-middle Horns will have big problems matching up with Smith -- they'll rotate three defenders on him -- but the game will be decided in the backcourt, as is so often true in the tournament.

It is imperative that Simpkins keeps the Terps under control against the Texas press, essential that Hipp bothers Texas guard Terrence Rencher, important that Rhodes makes wise decisions in the open court.

The truth is that the vast majority of NCAA tournament games are decided right where today's will be, among the guards. The one asset almost every Final Four team possesses is an experienced, productive backcourt.

"Players tend to get nervous and excited in the postseason, so you need guards who stay calm and get the ball to the right people," Williams said.

The Terps will need a big game today particularly from Simpkins, who was as superb against Gonzaga as he was awful in the ACC tournament. If Simpkins plays well, the Terps will win. Period.

Of course, they also could win if Smith rebounds from his clunker performance with a huge game. He did the last time he scored in single figures (against Duke at home), rebounding with a 29-point, 21-rebound masterpiece against Virginia.

"He's always going to be our main man; we know that," Booth said.

But he isn't alone.

"Anyone who thinks he is," Booth said, "just hasn't seen us play."

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