Take-charge void puts Terps in foul mood 0-2 in ACC, Williams hopes leader steps up vs. No. 13 Florida State

January 07, 1998|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- Who leads?

Heading into tonight's Atlantic Coast Conference game against No. 13 Florida State at Cole Field House (7, ESPN), the question that confronted Maryland basketball back in October still hasn't been answered. Are the Terps minus a significant number of meaningful wins because they are minus a dominant personality?

The issue of chemistry is a touchy one on a team that was picked to finish fourth in the ACC, but now finds itself in an early hole, with the worst records (7-5, 0-2) in the nation's top conference.

Coach Gary Williams has struggled with his point guard spot, benching Terrell Stokes after seven games and inserting Matt Kovarik as a starter. The Terps could see even more change there, but they've been fairly steady at the other four spots.

In Obinna Ekezie, they have a center who wants the ball. Power forward Rodney Elliott might be the most improved player in the ACC. Small forward Laron Profit wasn't at his best last week, but he's been a streaky player before. Shooting guard Sarunas Jasikevicius has shown he can score in a half-court game.

There's the potential for balance, but what the Terps have lacked is a cool, hardhead who will miss a game-deciding shot, and not flinch when a similar opportunity comes. A person who will mean it when he curses. An upperclassman with a warrior's mentality, that one alpha male whose back is broad enough to carry everyone else.

A guy like Keith Booth.

"We don't have a go-to guy, a player we know is going to score down the stretch," Williams acknowledged last month. "Part of the problem -- with the coaches too -- is that we all relied on Keith Booth. He would do whatever he had to do in order for the team to be successful. That's the attitude we have to have."

The Chicago Bulls rookie didn't have the prettiest offensive game, but he experienced little losing at Dunbar High, and had no taste for it in his four years as a starter at Maryland.

Booth was the only starter the Terps had to replace this season. Fellow Dunbar grad Elliott, the Terps' leading scorer and rebounder, has done a remarkable job filling the statistical void created by his departure, but have the other veteran starters been able to replace the intangibles Booth brought to Maryland?

"The thing we all got from Keith was that he came every day ready to play, no matter the situation," Kovarik said. "We have to get five guys who work that hard every game, and we'll be fine."

Williams said that Booth "was no more vocal than anyone else," but his crunch-time play spoke volumes.

"When Profit hit the shot that won at Wake Forest last year, that sequence started when we threw the ball into Keith," Williams said. "He was triple-teamed, and he was still able to make the play, hit the open shooter. He scored five points in the last minute at Duke. We knew that if we got Keith the ball, he could do that."

The Terps' only chest-thumping victory this season came against No. 2 Kansas, a solid group effort in which Maryland failed to score a basket in the final four minutes, but instead relied on free throws from five players.

Missed opportunities abounded in the first four losses. Profit missed his shot at being the hero in the season opener against South Carolina. Stokes got nothing out of the last two possessions at Clemson. Poor decision-making was contagious against George Washington, and no one could make the big play at Missouri either.

The finish wasn't a problem four days ago against Duke, when a 104-72 humiliation represented Maryland's worst loss at Cole Field House since the 1969-70 season. The Terps say there is no crisis of confidence, but they've dropped out of the Top 25, and they can't afford many more 0-2 weeks if they want to get to the NCAA tournament.

Williams didn't have the Terps watch the Duke tape, he instead began this week's preparation with some positive reinforcement the form of the Kansas video. Elliott, who Williams said is becoming that "go-to" guy, didn't practice until yesterday because of dizziness caused by a frightening fall he took against Duke.

Williams admitted that the Terps need as tall a lineup as they can muster against a Florida State team that is one of the biggest in the ACC. Asked if he's considering any more experiments, like moving Jasikevicius to the point and starting freshman 7-footer Mike Mardesich, Williams said, "You never know what might show up in a game."

Florida State (12-2, 1-1), meanwhile, has been the most pleasant surprise in the ACC.

Junior-college transfer Terrell Baker has meshed well with four starters who returned from a team that went 6-10 in the ACC. All have bought into the work ethic espoused by first-year coach Steve Robinson, who spent the past two seasons as the head coach at Tulsa, and the seven before that as an assistant at Kansas.

The Seminoles' only losses are to those same Jayhawks and No. 1 North Carolina, and they own wins over Connecticut and Arizona. Over the past eight days they've won in Louisiana, Chicago and most recently at N.C. State, where they overcame a point deficit for their first ACC win.

It was a gut-check win.

( The kind Maryland needs.

Pub Date: 1/07/98

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