COLLEGE PARK The ultimate team player never complained when asked to guard a man 5 inches taller or 40 pounds heavier.
The ultimate team player never balked when his job assignment was defense and rebounding, the unheralded jobs of college basketball.
Keith Booth, Maryland's ultimate team player, does the dirty work and the odd jobs for the Terps, and he does them happily.
But in the past month, a curious thing happened.
The ultimate team player became a significant offensive weapon.
Now, with the Terps on the threshold of their third straight NCAA tournament appearance, Booth, a junior, has become a big scorer and the dominating player Maryland, Duke and Kentucky all thought him to be when they recruited him at Dunbar High three years ago.
Three times since the beginning of February, the 6-foot-6 power forward has scored career highs. He burned Virginia for totals of 27 and 29 points in the regular season, and in Saturday's semifinal round of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, Booth scorched Georgia Tech for 33 points in a loss.
Predictably, he was not overwhelmed by his big tournament game.
"I'll take a win over 33 points any time," he said.
Booth was rated one of the nation's top seniors at Dunbar in 1993, ahead of a tall, skinny post player from Norfolk, Va., named Joe Smith. But it was Smith who flashed to fame the fastest, taking the Terps to consecutive Sweet 16s before moving on to the NBA.
Booth worked diligently and played unspectacularly he had those dirty jobs, remember the past two years.
"All the hype around me was because I played at Dunbar and we won the national championship and I was a McDonald's All-American," he said. "I received a lot of [attention] because of the accolades I received at the high school level.
"When you move to the next level, you have to work harder. As far as my success on the college level, everything is going just about right. I'm in my junior year and having fun as a college student."
If expectations were higher for Booth and his pace slower by comparison, his was still the path of progress.
"Keith has done what you like to see players do, which is get better every year," Maryland coach Gary Williams said yesterday as he began preparations for Friday's opening-round NCAA tournament game against Santa Clara in Tempe, Ariz. "He's been a program player. He's been willing to play defense, rebound, play bigger people, play out of position sometimes to make us a good team.
"The reason we got to two Sweet 16s and back to the NCAA this year . . . you've got to look at Keith Booth with what he did for the program. He's gone against guys like Juwan Howard, played against all the great players in our league the last couple of years and always held his own."
Booth has taken great strides in his offensive game this season. He is scoring nearly five points more a game than he did last year (15.6 to 10.9). His rebounds are up from 7.3 to 7.9 and he has had eight double doubles, compared to three a year ago.
He still leads the team in two dubious categories, though, with 86 turnovers and 96 personal fouls.
Williams attributes Booth's big season to two developments better free-throw shooting and less faking.
"Keith has become a very good free-throw shooter," the coach said. "That takes the pressure off him inside. Before, Keith felt lTC like he had to make every shot because if he missed and got fouled, he'd only make one of two. Now he's at 78 percent [actually 76.9], and has great chances for a three-point play inside.
"The other thing is he's gotten more direct with his moves inside. I tell him, 'When you beat a guy, just take it to the rim. Don't make another fake.' Keith is quick enough that once he beats his guy, he should just go to the basket."
Booth has scored in double figures in 27 of the team's 29 games, prompting Williams to call him and Johnny Rhodes the team's two most consistent players.
But Booth made only third-team All-ACC this season in the balloting by a Carolina-flavored sportswriters group. He wasn't upset at all.
"It's an honor to be third-team," he said. "I don't get caught up in things like that."
The ultimate team player even said he feels appreciated for his sometimes unheralded role.
"When I score a basket, the fans cheer," Booth said. "I think my work around here doesn't go unnoticed. Recognition will take care of itself. The one thing I do know is, I will work hard."
Santa Clara at a glance
Site: Santa Clara, Calif.
Coach: Dick Davey (four years, 72-41).
Arena: Toso Pavilion (5,000 capacity).
Record: 19-8 overall, 10-4 in West Coast Conference.
WCC tournament: Lost to Pepperdine, 63-60, in first round.
Probable starting lineup: Forwards, Jason Sedlock, 6-7, Jr., and Kevin Dunne, 6-6, Sr. Center, Brendan Graves, 6-10, Sr. Guards, Steve Nash, 6-3, Sr., and Marion Garnett, 6-2, Jr.
Top scorers: Nash (16.9), Garnett (12.7)
Top rebounder: Graves (7.2)
Biggest wins: 78-69 vs. UCLA at Maui Invitational; 71-66 vs. Georgia Tech at Cable Car Classic.
Pub Date: 3/12/96