Traded places College basketball: Out of high school, Maryland's Keith Booth was supposed to be the star and Georgia Tech's Matt Harpring wasn't. Things have played out differently, but each has become his team's leader.

December 12, 1996|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- Their profiles have changed since high school. Where once Keith Booth was considered among the country's blue-chip stars, he is now a blue-collar senior whose coach feels he is unappreciated. Where once Matt Harpring was lightly regarded as a big-time college prospect, he is now an All-American.

But certain things about these two forwards are remarkably similar.

With the departure of Joe Smith two years ago and four seniors after last season, Maryland is Booth's team. With the backcourt of Stephon Marbury and Drew Barry gone from a team that won last season's Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season championship, Georgia Tech is Harpring's.

The 6-foot-6 senior from Baltimore and the 6-7 junior from suburban Atlanta will be the focus tonight when Maryland (6-0) and Georgia Tech (4-1) open their ACC seasons at 8 p.m. at Cole Field House. They'll likely spend a lot of time guarding each other.

"He creates a lot of mismatches for our team," Harpring said. "He's more like a small forward down low. I go down low when I have to, but I'm more comfortable outside. When I have an open jump shot, I'm confident that I'll hit it. Keith seems more confident when he's inside going to the basket."

Said Booth: "He's a great player. He does a lot of things players these days don't do, like moving without the ball to set himself up for a shot. When you're going up against him, you have to put a body at him at all times, and that's sometimes hard to do."

The difference in style has produced similar results.

In their careers, Booth has played better against Georgia Tech than against any other ACC team, averaging 17.3 points and 6.7 rebounds on 55.8 percent shooting in seven games. Harpring has done even better against the Terrapins, averaging 21.8 points and 10.2 rebounds on 55.3 shooting in five games. Their numbers are up this year.

Booth has led the Terrapins to their best start since the 1981-82 season by averaging 20 points and 10.4 rebounds.

"I think Keith's better. It's the culmination of working hard for three years," said Maryland coach Gary Williams. "The players are looking to him; that's important for a scorer."

Harpring has helped the Yellow Jackets avoid the kind of start they had last year -- 6-7 going into the ACC opener against the Terrapins -- by averaging 23.2 points and 10.4 rebounds. But on a team that starts two freshmen at guard and includes two others among its first seven players, Harpring needs to dominate nearly every night.

"It gives you instant confidence that your teammates and coaches believe in you," said Harpring. "When I first came here, James [Forrest] and Travis [Best] were in the same situation. Now, my teammates feed off me. There's pressure when you're an All-American. Everyone expects you to play like an All-American every night."

What Harpring has become is also a testimony to the work he has put in, starting after his senior year at a small, Catholic school in Dunwoody, Ga. Thought to have more potential as a quarterback, Harpring was heading to Northwestern after Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins recommended that he consider playing basketball at a place like Furman.

"I wasn't sure he was an ACC player," said Cremins, whose son was a classmate of Harpring's and kept telling his father that he was making a mistake. "When the situation changed for Martice Moore [a freshman who played one year at Tech], I had to go back in and beg forgiveness. He forgave us and he came here."

Coming out of Dunbar High School as a McDonald's All-American, Booth was expected to be the featured player of recruiting class that also included Smith, then a relatively unknown 6-10 center from Norfolk, Va. Smith became the ACC's Rookie of the Year, a first-team All-American and National Player of the Year as a sophomore before leaving as the NBA's first pick in the 1995 draft.

It wasn't until the second half of last season that Booth began to put up the kind of numbers that get national recognition. He broke his career high in scoring three times in Maryland's last 14 games, including a career-high 33 in a loss to Georgia Tech in the semifinals of the ACC tournament. He wound up averaging 15.3 points and 7.8 rebounds as a junior.

"Keith Booth is one of the top 10 seniors in the country, and I'm tired of the fact that people are ignoring him," Williams said Monday night. "I just want to know nine other seniors who are better than him."

Booth said he isn't as upset as his coach about the lack of attention.

"That's something I can't control," he said. "The only thing I can control is how hard I play. Whatever I have to do, I always bring my hard hat and go out there."

Pub Date: 12/12/96

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