Terps out to prove selves First-round loss gives deeper team a sense of unfinished business

UM opens tonight vs. S.C.

'I sense a little anger' from 4 starters back

November 14, 1997|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

MINNEAPOLIS -- He says he didn't hear it. And maybe Laron Profit was in such a state of shock that he didn't, although it was impossible to avoid the biting chants that filled the Pyramid in Memphis, Tenn., last March as Maryland was upset in the first round of the NCAA tournament by the College of Charleston.

But Sarunas Jasikevicius noticed, and his heart sank lower and lower as the chorus rang out again and again with words that ridiculed all the Terps had accomplished: "Overrated! Overrated!"

"Yeah, obviously I heard that," Jasikevicius said, seemingly still tormented by the memory. "It was embarrassing. There's no other way to put it. It hurt us. It hurt me."

It was a loss that Maryland coach Gary Williams says "stayed with me probably longer than any game I've ever been associated with." A loss that point guard Terrell Stokes says leaves Maryland -- now having dropped first-round games for two straight years -- with the feeling of having something to prove this season.

Tonight, almost eight months to the day of that shocking result, the Terrapins open their 1997-98 season against seventh-ranked South Carolina at the Black Coaches Association tournament in Minneapolis. And with four starters back from a team that finished 21-11 last season, and a roster that gives Williams the luxury of depth that was sorely lacking at the end of last season, it's a tough opener that the Terrapins are looking forward to.

Although they lost their emotional leader, Keith Booth, to the NBA, the Maryland players feel they have a team that's better than the one last year that won 17 of its first 19 games and reached as high as No. 5 in the national rankings.

And you know what? They're probably right.

"It is, it definitely is a better team," said Profit, who averaged 12.9 points last season and is the team's top returning scorer. "And that's not a knock on Keith. We got some guys who can flat out play."

Which will result in the Terrapins trying to make up for the loss of Booth by committee. While the much improved Rodney Elliott (senior forward, Dunbar) will likely replace Booth in the starting lineup for at least the early part of the season, he will come nowhere close to filling Booth's immense shoes.

"The last time we were [in this position] people talked about how we were going to replace Joe Smith and what happened -- four seniors got it into their head that they had to go out and replace Joe Smith," Profit said. "And what happened? The chemistry was terrible. Guys took shots they shouldn't have been taking, guys tried things they shouldn't have been trying to do."

No, this year guys will be doing what they are asked to do -- if they don't, there will be bodies on the bench willing and able to get the job done. On the front line, starting center Obinna Ekezie, a junior, will have to consistently throw his 6-foot-10, 260-pound body around in a league where most of the best players stand in the 6-7/6-8 range.

Profit, when at his best one of the most explosive players in the ACC, will have to play with consistency. And the 6-8 Elliott, a senior, will just need to simply provide the same spark as a starter as he did off the bench last season.

The bench will be solid, led by a trio of freshmen: Mike Mardesich, a 7-foot center who is capable of developing into one of the top big men in the league; Terence Morris, a 6-8 jumping jack who could develop into a starter this season; and LaRon Cephas, a 6-7 bruiser. With junior forward Brian Watkins and senior guard Matt Kovarik rounding out the 10-man rotation, the Terrapins should have the depth to avoid the fatigue that, in the late part of last season, played a major role in the team's losing five of its last six games.

Perhaps the biggest key to any success will be the play of the starting backcourt, junior point guard Terrell Stokes and Jasikevicius, a senior shooting guard. Jasikevicius is an excellent passer, but it will be crucial that he hit his perimeter shots so that opponents don't constantly sag on Maryland's big front line like they did a year ago. (Jasikevicius sprained his left ankle in the team's first exhibition game, but returned to practice Wednesday and should be in the starting lineup tonight.)

As for Stokes, his struggles over the later part of last season played a big role in the team's tailspin. If his assist-to-turnover ratio doesn't improve (1.4 to 1.0 last season) he could wind up losing a lot of his minutes at the point to Jasikevicius or the versatile Profit.

"I need to be consistent all through the year," Stokes said. "I don't have any excuses, I just had a poor half of the season."

Maryland's backcourt will get a major test in its opener, taking on a South Carolina team that has maybe the best backcourt in the nation in B. J. McKie and Melvin Watson. The Gamecocks also are eager to get the season going, especially after their season ended in the opening round of the NCAA tournament when -- as a No. 2 seed -- South Carolina was beaten by Coppin State.

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