Terps' final not at all conclusive NCAA TOURNAMENT

March 29, 1995|By JOHN EISENBERG

From the first dribble of Midnight Madness at Cole Field House in October until midway through the second half of the Maryland Terrapins' loss to Connecticut in the NCAA West Regional semifinals last week, a lot of people around here thought the Terps were capable of making the Final Four this year.

I know I did. A lot of you did, too.

No one ever suggested that the Terps were shoo-ins. The point was that they were capable of going where no Maryland team had gone before. For the first time in a while, it was reasonable to think big.

But then the Terps were beaten badly by a UConn team that was beaten pretty badly itself by UCLA in the regional final two days later, giving credence to the notion that the Terps were a couple of levels below Final Four caliber -- and that our optimism was misguided all along, groundless, a product mostly of the publicity that attended the Terps due to the presence of Franchise Sophomore Joe Smith.

Is that right? Were we wrong?

No.

That the Terps didn't make the Final Four doesn't mean they weren't capable of it.

They were.

At the risk of sounding like Forrest Gump, that they didn't make it means mostly that, well, they didn't make it.

Please understand a basic truth/contradiction about the NCAA tournament. It has become so huge that it serves as the sole yardstick by which teams measure the success of their seasons, yet it doesn't necessarily prove anything about what teams are made of or which are better than others.

Was Villanova better than Georgetown in 1985? Not even close. But the Wildcats picked the right night to play the game of their lives.

Was Texas Southern virtually even with Arkansas this year? Get real; Arkansas was twice the team. Yet Southern almost won their first-round tournament game because the Hogs fell asleep.

Could Weber State win half as many games in the Big Ten as the Michigan State team it upset in the first round? No way.

Was UConn that superior to Maryland? Don't believe the lessons offered by any single tournament game.

The tournament's "knockout" format is what makes it so exciting, yet it also undermines any definitive conclusions about which teams are better, underrated, overlooked or credible contenders.

Does anyone out there really believe that Oklahoma State -- a team that has lost nine games, including one to Kansas State -- is one of the nation's four best teams?

Sorry, the Cowboys are just another Top 25 team that got hot at the right time.

Maryland could beat them.

Not would, could.

So could Kentucky, Kansas and a few other top teams that were capable of getting to Seattle, but just didn't.

You have to be lucky as well as good to make the Final Four, get hot at the right time, play teams suited to your style, stay awake, avoid playing the inevitable clunker at the wrong time.

Sure, the Terps had numerous shortcomings that were exposed in the UConn game. UConn had four starters who could hit jump shots; the Terps never had anyone on whom they could rely to hit from the outside all season. The Terps weren't that physical inside and not that consistent individually -- other than Smith and usually Johnny Rhodes, you couldn't depend on any of them for 40 minutes of relevant basketball.

And not to single anyone out, but Duane Simpkins' 7-for-24 shooting in the Terps' Sweet 16 losses to Michigan last year and UConn this year does make you wonder about his ability to deliver against unfamiliar top competition.

But it is a mistake to make too many big-picture judgments about the Terps or any team using one tournament game as evidence. The Terps' biggest shortcoming against UConn was that they weren't themselves, that they didn't come close to playing up to their potential. And that demonstrates mostly that their timing was lousy, not their team.

Yes, UConn's cool proficiency had something to do with the Terps' poor play. But the Terps' dead-legged performance was every bit as much of a determining factor. They were "out-quicked" by a team that wasn't much quicker, if at all.

That's not to say that maybe, in the final reckoning, the Terps weren't a little overrated. They were an average team away from Cole Field House, inconsistent, without a strong knockout punch.

But they also were capable of great heights. One poor game in late March can't render irrelevant what they accomplished during the season. They beat Wake Forest, Virginia and Utah, all high tournament seeds. They beat a North Carolina team that is going to Seattle. They won 12 of 16 games in the nation's toughest conference.

Yes, they were in the Final Four "game," one of, say, two dozen teams in the country capable of getting there with the right dose of good timing and favorable circumstances.

That they didn't make it doesn't mean they were pretenders all along. It just means they didn't make it.

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