Terps seek to rebuild good name Reputation plummets after early ACC losses

January 11, 1996|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

This is how far Maryland's slumping Terrapins have slipped in the nation's conscience:

In the current AP Top 25 poll, the Terps did not collect a single vote. Among the 56 teams that did receive votes was George Washington -- a team Maryland beat by 17 in early December.

In the more credible coaches' poll, they picked up 12 votes to tie Jacksonville of the mighty Sun Belt Conference for 39th.

Starting with Saturday's Atlantic Coast Conference crucible against Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, N.C., the Terps enter XXTC stretch of games that figures to define this season's team.

They are a veteran team trying to create a new identity -- out of the shadow of Joe Smith, but forever linked to the man who led them to consecutive Sweet 16s.

"This weighs on everyone the same way," said point guard and co-captain Duane Simpkins yesterday of the team's 0-2 start in the ACC. "Coming into the year, we wanted to prove to everyone that we were more than just a team of 'other players' and Joe Smith. We wanted to show everyone we were part of this, too."

The Terps haven't lost their first three league games since the 1992-93 season, when the current seniors were freshmen in what became a 2-14 forced march through ACC territory.

What Simpkins remembers, instead, is the 1993-94 season when they fought their way out of obscurity.

"This is reminiscent of my sophomore year -- Joe's freshman year," he said. "We were in a funk. We went down to Florida State and got a big win down there. It was a game we needed to break out of the funk, and we got it. We went on to the Sweet 16."

After losing at Georgia Tech with a defensive lapse and to North Carolina in a bizarre overtime, the Terps (6-5 overall) will need to be at their best against the eighth-ranked Demon Deacons, who are 9-1 after last night's 57-54 victory over Duke.

Not only does Wake have 6-foot-10 Tim Duncan -- perhaps the best big man in the country -- but the Deacons currently boast the best three-point shooting numbers in the conference.

What that means for Maryland is defense -- more and better.

"Our weakness now is we're giving up points in transition," said senior swingman Johnny Rhodes. "That really hurt us against Georgia Tech.

"We're allowing the opposition to shoot a great percentage [53.4 in two ACC games]. We want to cut that down."

The problem is twofold, Simpkins said.

"I've watched a number of college games on TV," he said, "and we've missed more shots close to the basket than anybody. When you're going back on defense, you think about it, and it hurts you sometimes."

Maryland ranks seventh in field-goal percentage (45.2) in the ACC. When the Terps have shot over 50 percent, they are 4-0.

"We're down; when you lose your first two games, you're down," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "But we're pretty resilient. It's two of 16 games. That's what I sell to the players. It's not the end of the world. I've been here before. Hopefully, we can work our way out of it."

The Terps try not to speak in absolutes.

"I wouldn't say we're desperate," Rhodes said. "But we must have this win. A win on the road would be a good sign for us."

NOTES: Rhodes is second in the nation with 4.3 steals per game, and Simpkins' 92 percent free-throw shooting also ranks second. . . . With the exam break and Tuesday's postponement, the Terps will have played just four games in 30 days when they face Wake Forest.

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