Terps show usual flaws, minus Smith

November 25, 1995|By John Eisenberg

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- On the few occasions in the past two seasons when Joe Smith was stuck on the bench with foul problems, the Maryland Terrapins found out what life was like without their star center. Rarely was it fun.

Now, with Smith gone to the NBA, Life Without Joe has become a permanent state for the Terps. And it's just as unpleasant now as it was before.

In their season-opening game against top-ranked Kentucky last night at the Springfield Civic Center, the Terps displayed many of the characteristics that have marked them in the past few years. Flashes of stunning offensive brilliance. Long stretches of cold shooting. Little production from the bench. Inconsistency from key players.

In the past, when Smith was around to bail them out, the Terps could still win on such a night and often did. But with Smith playing for the Golden State Warriors against the Celtics last night at the new FleetCenter in Boston, the Terps went down easily on national TV.

After scoring 20 points in the first five minutes with the best start to any season you will ever see, the Terps came to an absolute halt offensively. Kentucky forced them to score in their half-court offense, and they couldn't. They looked ponderous and predictable and startlingly lacking in weapons.

It took them another 21 minutes to score as many points as they did in those first five minutes.

Kentucky took the lead for keeps at 32-31 and stretched the margin to as high as 18 points late in the second half, and although the Terps showed heart in rallying late to cut the lead to six with two minutes to play, they were outclassed.

Granted, Kentucky is a deep, resourceful national- championship contender that will give opponents fits this season. That the Terps weren't up to such a standard is hardly the death knell to their season. They're still probably one of the best 20 teams in the country, thanks to the talent and experience of seniors Johnny Rhodes, Exree Hipp and Duane Simpkins.

"Obviously, when you lose a Joe Smith there is concern over whether you'll remain competitive," Terps coach Gary Williams said after the game. "I'm pleased we were able to remain competitive."

Still, Kentucky's 96-84 win showed how far behind the elite teams the Terps are lagging.

They were hamstrung by many of the same problems that have bothered them against top teams in the past few years. Poor outside shooting. Keith Booth's foul trouble. Hipp's tendency to disappear. Simpkins' erratic play at the point. And without Smith around as the safety net, each of those problems becomes that much more critical now.

The fact is that the Terps have gone from having the best center in the country to no center at all.

Mario Lucas has replaced Smith in the starting lineup, but it's a forced fit and obviously not the answer. Lucas, a senior, is a career reserve who scores better from the perimeter than from the lane and has little physical presence inside. He is a forward at heart, and not even a power forward so much as a shooting forward.

Williams' dilemma is that he doesn't have another option at the position. Bulked-up sophomore Rodney Elliott is still a forward. Obinna Ekezie, an extremely raw freshman, is the team's only pure center -- and just not ready to carry a significant load.

Lucas had 10 points, four rebounds and five turnovers in 26 minutes last night.

"We're going to need more rebounding from him," Williams said. "You have to understand, Mario isn't going to play above the rim. He's just going to have to get position inside and work hard. That's one of the changes we're going through this year without Joe. And Mario is going through the change from a part-time player to a major player. That's a hard adjustment to make any

time, much less starting out against Kentucky. Hopefully he'll keep improving."

Actually, it may be that the Terps are going to have to win this year without much contribution from the post position. That means they'll struggle against teams that are strong inside, and they will rise and fall with their guards and forwards against everyone else.

But the backcourt was also something of a problem last night, despite a career-high 30 points from Rhodes. The Terps made only one of 12 three-point attempts, a pale performance compared to Kentucky's nine of 19 on three-pointers. Simpkins was 2-for-8 from the field.

"The three-pointer was the difference in the game," Kentucky coach Rick Pitino said. "Meaning our ability to defend it as well as make it."

For five minutes, it didn't matter what Pitino's team did. The Terps offered a season's worth of highlights in springing to a 20-9 lead on spectacular long passes over Kentucky's press. But then they just stopped, and never really started again until it was too late. Life Without Joe had begun predictably.

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