Terps need work for sweeter finish next year

March 25, 1995|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Staff Writer

OAKLAND, Calif. -- When their NCAA West Regional semifinal game was over and their season had ended Thursday night with a disappointing 99-89 defeat to Connecticut at the Oakland Coliseum, they did not reflect too long on what had happened.

There were no last-second plays to dissect, no coaching moves to second-guess. The Maryland Terrapins knew they had not played well, that the Huskies had sliced them up pretty good. And the Terps also knew something else, though no one was going to admit it.

They would have to start pointing to next season and the likelihood of life after Joe Smith.

"Hopefully Joe's coming back," Maryland coach Gary Williams said after his team lost for the second straight year in the Sweet 16 and finished with the second-most wins (26-8) in school history. "I'm going to do everything to provide him with the information he needs to make his decision. But if you're a lottery pick and you stand to lose $60 million, that becomes a big part of the decision."

Williams already is mentally preparing for next season and the seeming inevitability of Smith going to the NBA. If the 6-foot-10 sophomore All-American decides to surprise everyone by coming back to College Park for his junior year, the Terps undoubtably will be one of the preseason favorites to win a national championship.

But if he doesn't, and the speculation is that he'll turn pro, the Terps will have to make adjustments to stay competitive both in the Atlantic Coast Conference and nationally. It's not inconceivable for Maryland to be as good, given the talent and experience of the returning players. Connecticut did it after losing Donyell Marshall last season. Virginia reached the Final Four after Ralph Sampson left.

"We're looking forward to everyone coming back, and that includes Joe," said sophomore forward Keith Booth. "We have to build on the season we had. We won 26 games. We were one of five teams to reach the Sweet 16 two years in a row. But we have to get over the hump. That means everyone working even harder improve their games as individuals and then we have to come back and work even harder as a team."

The loss to Connecticut exposed a number of weaknesses, individually and as a team. Maryland played from behind the entire game. The Terps were unable to get the ball inside to Smith early. They were unsteady trying to handle Connecticut's changing defenses and transition game. They were unsuccessful getting to the free-throw line (only nine of 14 overall) and shooting three-pointers (4-for-20, including 2-for-14 in the second half) over the Huskies' zone.

Among the improvements that need to be made:

* Outside shooting: What had been Maryland's biggest question mark going into the 1994-95 season remains one. Though the Terps had some games where they were unconscious from the outside, such as the upset of then-No. 1-ranked North Carolina, there were others when they were just unable to hit anything but layups and jumpers inside the foul line.

Junior guard Johnny Rhodes is terrific going to the basket, but he needs to become more of a consistent outside threat and learn to shoot more off the dribble. Also, Williams has to decide whether freshman Sarunas Jasikevicius can help the team with his shooting, or is too much of a defensive liability. The addition of 6-6 Laron Profit from Delaware's Caesar Rodney High should help.

* Interior defense: If Smith goes, the Terps have a tremendous void in terms of a shot-blocker and rebounder. They should be able to make up his points, but his blocks and boards are `D another question. Obinna Ekezie, a 6-10, 260-pounder from Nigeria who played at Worcester (Mass.) Academy this season, certainly will give them some size, but it's not known whether he can step in right away. Junior Mario Lucas was a solid reserve this year, but he needs to become more consistent in a starting role and more aggressive inside. Williams might have to use a rotation of Lucas, freshman Rodney Elliott and Ekezie at that position.

* Leadership: The loss of Smith plays into this as well. Though low-keyed and often businesslike, Smith became a leader by sheer force of talent and will. Now without Smith, the Terps need to look elsewhere. But next season will mark the first time in three years that Maryland will have senior starters in Rhodes, Duane Simpkins, Exree Hipp and possibly Lucas. It could be leadership by committee.

"There's a big difference when you have seniors," said Williams. "You just have to look at a team like Connecticut with Donny Marshall and guys like [Kevin] Ollie."

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