For Terps, notably seniors, the future begins today

January 20, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal

The season starts today. No more meetings. No more theories. No more excuses. Maryland must beat North Carolina State at home, or start thinking about the NIT.

This season has been a textbook study in what happens to a team after its best player is chosen first in the NBA draft. Still, Maryland should be better than this. Maryland should not be 0-3 in the ACC.

That's why today is so important. If Maryland wins, then beats Clemson at home Wednesday, it can salvage its season. But if Maryland loses and drops to 0-4, the NCAA tournament would be almost out of reach.

These things happen, but the whiny Terps fans apparently think they're rooting for Kentucky. Maryland is one of five teams to reach the Sweet 16 the past two years. A step back is to be expected, especially after losing Joe Smith.

Then again, failing to make the NCAAs with this team would be inexcusable. If it happens, it will be fair to question coach Gary Williams' approach, his recruiting, everything. But let's see how this plays out first.

Fact is, if the Terps had beaten North Carolina, they'd be about where they should be, with road losses to Georgia Tech and Wake Forest, the two teams that were tied for first place in the ACC before meeting Wednesday night.

Problem is, the Terps didn't beat North Carolina -- they lost by two points in overtime. And now those two road losses look particularly troublesome because a team with so many seniors should have won at least one of them.

The ACC media picked Maryland to win the conference for one reason -- its experience. The other teams are far younger than the Terps. That usually counts for a lot in college basketball, especially as the season wears on.

So here's Maryland, with four players who had combined for 309 starts entering this season -- seniors Duane Simpkins, Johnny Rhodes and Exree Hipp and junior Keith Booth.

Here's Maryland, with another senior, Mario Lucas, who was probably the best sixth man in the conference last season, and has played significant minutes throughout his career.

Here's Maryland, going nowhere.

This group is experienced at playing with Smith, not without him. Competitive losses to Kentucky and Massachusetts fooled everyone. None of the seniors, not even Rhodes, can fill the void.

And another thing:

"College basketball has changed," Williams said. "I think there's some disillusionment when you get to your senior year and you're not considered one of the guys who definitely is going to play at the next level, after getting told that by people the previous two years.

"You have to gather yourself, check yourself to see why you're playing the game. We've had some of that. The thing I've been stressing to the seniors is that this is their team. They'll be remembered for this team, not the previous two teams. Those were Joe's."

Only a coach could make seniors sound as if they're as big a problem as freshmen, but there is an element of truth in Williams' words. Hipp, in particular, probably got stars in his eyes with all of those agents hanging around Smith the past two years.

1% Still, it's Williams' job to make

the pieces fit. Certain things, like Hipp's weight gain, are out of his control. Lucas is one-dimensional. Simpkins is better suited to shooting guard. But none of these things seemed to matter when Smith was at Maryland.

The questions will mount if the Terps keep losing. Are the seniors mentally exhausted after four years of Williams' screaming? Well, Bob Knight's seniors never seem to suffer that problem. And, if anything, Williams believes he went too easy on his players early.

"The thing maybe I should have done is push the seniors harder," Williams said. "At the start of the season, I was thinking, 'They've been through it before. They know how to prepare.'

"Maybe we should have gone at it harder in November. We didn't. Now, it's my turn to step up and make some things happen."

To be sure, Williams does not shirk from his role.

"I'll take all the responsibility," he said. "At the same time, we haven't lost to anybody bad. People forget that very quickly. Who have we lost to? I don't apologize to anyone."

He doesn't have to. Heck, when the seniors were freshmen, the Terps went 2-14 in the conference. That was the season the NCAA sanctions were lifted. The arrival of Rhodes and Co. signaled Maryland's renaissance. The arrival of Smith the next year made everything happen in a hurry.

Looking back, it was too much, too soon, creating unfair expectations. True, Williams has never recruited a dominant center, but Maryland isn't exactly a magnet for high school All-Americans. Even Smith wanted to go to North Carolina, remember?

Williams got lucky with Smith, but that can hardly be held against him. Recruiting goes in cycles, and the current freshman class is a good one. Transfer Brian Watkins, a 6-foot-9 banger, becomes eligible next season. With five scholarships to offer, Williams needs to bring in another strong class, complete with an impact big man and a Louis Bullock-type shooter.

Terrell Stokes should prove a better point guard than Simpkins; LaRon Profit could become everything that Hipp isn't; Obinna Ekezie might develop into a solid ACC center. And don't forget Booth, who will be the unquestioned leader of this team next season.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

This season isn't over.

This season starts today, against N.C. State.

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