Exhibition will answer questions for Terps Defensive rebounding key issue for Williams


COLLEGE PARK -- An exhibition game against a team from Australia before the 1993-94 season proved to be a revelation for the Maryland basketball team. Though the Terrapins lost, they discovered a potential star named Joe Smith.

No such surprises are expected tonight, when Maryland tunes up for the 1996-97 season with an 8 p.m. exhibition game at Cole Field House against the Melbourne Tigers. But the first test for the Terps outside of a few intrasquad scrimmages should provide at least a glimpse into their immediate future.

Among the questions being asked:

Will senior captain Keith Booth make the transition from power forward to small forward while continuing to provide the leadership he began to show during the second half of last season?

Will sophomore guards Terrell

Stokes and Laron Profit be able to do in starting roles what they did coming off the bench last season while backing up the now-departed backcourt of Johnny Rhodes and Duane Simpkins?

Will sophomore center Obinna Ekezie, who lost nearly 20 pounds of baby fat over the summer, also lose his penchant for quick fouls? Will this work-in-progress become a reliable option on offense and a relative force on defense?

Will juniors Rodney Elliott, Sarunas Jasikevicius and Matt Kovaric finally become consistent contributors and help provide the depth, experience and, in Jasikevicius' case, outside shooting Maryland dearly needs?

Will the team's two lightly touted freshmen, center Mike Mardesich and guard Kelly Hite, as well as Notre Dame transfer Brian Watkins, give Maryland some strength in numbers that would allow coach Gary Williams to go nine or 10 deep?

Will the chemistry of this season's team help it overcome its obvious deficiencies and exceed the predictions of an eighth-place finish in the Atlantic Coast Conference, just as last year's imbalance led a team picked first to finish fifth?

It will take time to answer these questions, but tonight's game should give Williams an opportunity to see where his team is and where it needs to go before the season opener Nov. 26 against Howard and, more importantly, the ACC opener -- three weeks earlier than usual -- Dec. 12 against Georgia Tech.

"I'm waiting to see as much as everyone else," Williams said. The biggest questions in Williams' mind, he said, are the ability of his team to get on the defensive boards and to run its half-court offense.

With Booth playing more on the perimeter, it will put the pressure on Elliott and Watkins, both 6 feet 9, to go to the boards along with Ekezie. The Terps were better at offensive rebounding (405 to their opponents' 365) than defensive rebounding (664-748) last season. As for the half-court offense, the presence of Stokes should give the Terps a measure of patience they often lacked with Simpkins. Though Simpkins was uncanny at breaking down a defense as the 35-second clock ticked to single digits, Stokes seems to get his teammates into their half-court sets sooner.

"I have a pretty good idea what Obinna and Rodney can do, this [exhibition game] is more for Mike and Brian," said Williams. "I want to see us get to the point where we're not a five- or six-man team. Can we play eight or nine? To be a good team this year, we're going to have to play that many."

Williams said he is pleased with the progress made by Mardesich, a 7-footer considered a project -- at best -- by many Division I coaches. But Mardesich, who followed Ekezie at Worcester Academy and chose Maryland over Harvard, has made steady improvement.

But the biggest surprise of the preseason has been Jasikevicius. The 6-4 junior from Kaunus, Lithuania, spent his first two seasons in and out of Williams' doghouse. Even after he led his country's junior national team to the under-22 European championship this summer, Williams was cautious.

"He's played well during the summer before," Williams said before practice began.

But the performance has continued back at Maryland. Jasikevicius has played impressively while backing up Stokes and Profit.

NOTE: The Australian team, led by former Seton Hall star and two-time Olympian Andrew Gaze, is 0-3 against ACC teams on its tour.

Pub Date: 11/12/96

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