Good vibes soften Terps' shaky look One-for-all approach has Williams smiling

State college preview

November 26, 1996|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- The players are passing the ball more than the coach can remember. The coach is communicating more than the players can recall.

Can these be the Maryland Terrapins, who seemed to pass only the blame around last season?

Can this be Gary Williams, whose fiery on-court demeanor has appeared in stark contrast to his perceived aloofness off the floor?

One more question: How long can these good vibrations last for a team many have picked to finish eighth in the revived Atlantic Coast Conference?

Though it's much too early to tell, Maryland opens its season tonight against Howard at Cole Field House with a far different cast than it has had the past four years and a far different atmosphere surrounding the team than a year ago.

Williams has yet to endure the kind of defeat that has been known to keep him up half the night, but he, too, seems more energized and less stressed going into his eighth season here than in many of the previous seven.

"Each year is different in terms of your team," said Williams, 51. "I don't think there's a big difference with the way I coach. But these guys have been great to work with. There hasn't been a day in five weeks of practice where they didn't come ready to play."

Said senior captain Keith Booth, whose selfless, blue-collar style of play has set the tone for this year's team: "This is one of the hardest-working teams I've ever played on."

It's not just the effort his players are giving him that has Williams enthused. From the first day of practice last month through the two recent preseason games, the coach has been encouraged by his players' proficiency in what has become a lost art in college basketball: passing.

"I haven't seen any of our teams pass the way this one does," said Williams. "If there's a guy open, they rarely miss him."

In part, it's because the Terrapins have become top heavy with guards. Maryland has four players who can run the point with some proficiency, and a fifth, Booth, who can handle the ball extremely well for a player his size (6 feet 6).

But the biggest change is in the way the players are relating to each other and, perhaps as significantly, in the way Williams is relating to them. The departure of last season's senior class has been viewed in at least a couple of cases as addition by subtraction.

The Terrapins lost a great deal statistically when Johnny Rhodes, Duane Simpkins, Exree Hipp and Mario Lucas left the program. They helped Maryland go to NCAA tournaments the past three years, including two Sweet 16 appearances with All-American Joe Smith.

When Smith left for the NBA after his sophomore year, so did any semblance of a team.

"Joe Smith leaving put an unexpected burden on the seniors," said sophomore guard Laron Profit. "Each guy individually tried to replace Joe's stats. But it wasn't his stats; it was his presence. The agenda of the four seniors didn't mix with the team's agenda."

That the four seniors lived off campus didn't help them bond with the underclassmen on or off the court. Nor did the gripes about lost playing time or other distractions that contributed to the team's 17-13 record and first-round exit from the NCAA tournament.

"We're a team now," said junior guard Sarunas Jasikevicius, whose off-season improvement has put him prominently in Williams' plans and, quite possibly, in tonight's starting lineup.

Said sophomore guard Terrell Stokes: "Once the games were over, everyone went different ways. This year's team is a lot closer. We like each other and respect each other."

Said Profit: "The chemistry obviously is a lot better. There were times last year when a guy would be open and the person passing the ball would be saying, 'I can't pass it to him.' "

It was a similar refrain to the one heard before the 1994-95 season, when last year's seniors were sophomores.

That team, coming off a 12-16 disaster, squeaked into the NCAA tournament with 16 wins and shocked Massachusetts en route to the Sweet 16.

But that team had a relatively unknown freshman named Smith and a high-profile recruit from Dunbar High named Booth. This team has Atman Smith, a freshman walk-on from Dunbar. This team is virtually without a freshman class, with guard Kelly Hite expected to play a limited role and 7-0 center Mike Mardesich redshirting.

"The guys will do whatever it takes to win," said junior forward Rodney Elliott, who will back up both Booth and sophomore center Obinna Ekezie.

Williams, whose reputation for doing more with less is well-documented, also has made his own adjustments. The lines of communication between Williams and his players have opened dramatically in the past few months. But nobody suggests that Williams has mellowed.

"He's a lot looser, he's communicating more, he's more relaxed," said Profit.

An example of those communication skills came before the first preseason game, when Williams told Profit, expected along with Booth to be the team's big scorer this season, that Jasikevicius would start in his place.

"It surprised me," Profit said of the pre-game conversation. "We talked about it, and it made me play harder."

Not that these good feelings will last should Maryland live up -- or in this case down -- to what seems to be a consensus among the prognosticators.

Not that this improved chemistry will help Maryland make up for its shortcomings, particularly a lack of size and depth that was exacerbated by Mardesich's recent decision to sit out.

A lot more things have to go right for the Terrapins to finish fifth than go wrong for them to come in seventh or eighth in the nine-team conference.

"We all have a quiet confidence," said Profit. "We're going to exceed what others have predicted for us, mainly because our goals are a lot higher. If you shoot for the sun and you miss, at least you'll be right by the stars."

One thing is sure: Before they shoot for the sun, somebody likely will make a pass.

Pub Date: 11/26/96

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