Terps hope for inspiration from Smith NCAA tourney plans at stake vs. Cavaliers

March 02, 1996|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- In a ceremony certain to evoke memories of past glory and wistful visions of what might have been, the University of Maryland will hoist Joe Smith's No. 32 to the rafters of Cole Field House today.

Then, from his courtside seat, Smith will try to lead the Terrapins to victory one more time.

Smith, who left for the NBA after his sophomore season and two NCAA Sweet 16 appearances, returns to find Maryland in dire straits and facing a must-win, Atlantic Coast Conference game against Virginia.

The Terps (14-11, 6-8) are fighting for an NCAA tournament berth, while the Cavaliers (12-13, 6-9) are fighting to get in the NIT.

Smith, college basketball's player of the year last season, will be honored in a brief ceremony before the 4 p.m. tip-off. He becomes Maryland's 10th All-American to have his uniform number hung at Cole (the school doesn't retire numbers).

In his way of saying thanks, Smith is donating $10,000 to the university to benefit Maryland athletics. His entourage today will number nearly 50 friends and relatives.

"There will be a lot of excitement," Terps point guard Duane Simpkins said. "If anything, it'll be good for getting everybody pumped up. Our ultimate goal is to win the game."

When these two teams met at this juncture a year ago, they were playing for the ACC's regular-season title. Even with Smith, the Terps absorbed a 25-point blowout in Charlottesville, Va., and had to share the crown with three other teams.

So much has changed since then.

Smith left early for the NBA, where he was the first pick in the draft by the Golden State Warriors and has since become one of the league's top rookies. Maryland, meanwhile, has had a difficult transition in his absence.

"Everyone knew we would miss Joe," Simpkins said. "In a way, you kind of push reality to the side and say it's just 20 points and 10 rebounds [to replace]. But it's just not as easy as that."

Maryland coach Gary Williams said it will seem strange to watch Smith's number go up because "if it was 10 years ago, Joe would be playing his junior year here at Maryland."

And yes, Williams said, he has occasionally succumbed to the "what if?" game when it comes to his one-time prodigy.

"That's been there once in a while in the back of your mind," Williams said. "But you can't take away from what we're trying to do with this team. This is too big of a time for us, this year's team. You owe everything you can [do] to your team this year."

The Terps once had visions of another Sweet 16 run, but with four losses in their last five ACC games, are struggling to reach the NCAA tournament. At the very least, they must win today and Monday against Florida State to have a chance. They also may need at least one win in the ACC tourney.

Williams said he thinks they can get in by winning the next two.

"I would like to think we would, but there's no definites," Williams said. "You saw that last year with Georgia Tech, although our strength of schedule and RPI [rating percentage index] are higher than Georgia Tech's last year."

The Terps have shown flashes of being the team many expected them to be. But they've also hit bottom with a handful of dreadful losses.

"We played great games and we played lousy games," Williams said. "That's what drives you nuts as a coach. You'd like to have a certain degree of consistency."

Maryland will try to find that degree today, with its one-time leader looking on. Will the Terps find inspiration in Joe Smith's presence?

"It sure won't hurt," Williams said.

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