Terps raise the limit, their stakes

January 16, 1998|By JOHN EISENBERG

Well, the Maryland Terrapins have gone and done it now.

They have shown that it is reasonable to expect big things from them this season.

That's the danger of pulling off wins as big as their upset of top-ranked North Carolina at Cole Field House on Wednesday night.

They can't play that well every night, but they obviously can play better than they did while struggling to seven wins in their first 12 games, culminating in a 32-point loss to Duke 13 days ago.

The team that beat Carolina in Wednesday's instant classic bore little resemblance to the team that had struggled; Wednesday's Terps were balanced, deep, tough on the backboards, smart in the clutch -- a handful for any opponent.

If they can make that performance their norm from now on, they can accomplish a lot this season.

The challenge is to make that performance their norm, and, of course, that's easier said than done, particularly for a team that relies so much on emotion, as do all of Gary Williams' teams.

Remember, this team knocked off Kansas earlier this season, then lost to George Washington the next night. It's hard to fly high every night.

Still, after their unforgettable performance against Carolina, there are reasons to wonder just how high they can go.

One victory over a Top 2 team (Kansas) is easily dismissed as a fluke, but two is the announcement of a serious team.

That's particularly true considering that the key to the Carolina win was an element every coach covets -- a dominating inside presence. Obinna Ekezie and Mike Mardesich were a load at center, combining for 28 points on 12-for-19 shooting.

Both players are improving in a hurry as the season progresses, which is the best reason for Terps fans to feel optimistic. Nothing else in basketball promises more than a big man, or, even better, two.

Ekezie, a junior, has always been a candidate to become a star, with his thick body and soft hands. Inexperience and awkwardness were his drawbacks, resulting in foul trouble and general inconsistency.

Now, suddenly, there are signs that he is breaking out. After scoring 4.5 points per game as a freshman, 10.1 as a sophomore and 12.4 in the Terps' first 10 games this season, he has averaged 16.6 in the past five games and improved his free-throw shooting by 20 percent.

Clearly, something has clicked. He was all but unstoppable against Carolina, using slide steps, feints and pivots and driving hard almost every time he touched the ball. He finished with 16 points before fouling out.

Dick Vitale, broadcasting from a courtside table, almost needed a seat belt.

"A star is born! Remember the name!" cried Vitale, who went on to guarantee that Ekezie would play in the NBA.

TC It's a realistic goal, although Ekezie still needs to work on avoiding foul trouble and not forcing plays.

Still, if he keeps coming on, he could soon be too much for many opponents to handle.

And make no mistake, having a quality big man is the difference between making the Sweet 16 and losing in the first round in March.

The Terps might have two big men in March if Mardesich, a redshirt freshman, continues his stunning development.

No one expected too much from him this season, but his play has belied his youth almost from the beginning. He can shoot a jumper, pass and run the floor -- a fine trifecta for any player, let alone a 7-foot rookie. And he turned down Harvard to come to Maryland, so you know he's thinking out there.

He was the difference Wednesday night with his aggressive defense in the middle of the Terps' zone, shutting Carolina's Antawn Jamison out of the lane and forcing the Tar Heels to scramble for baskets. Oh, and he was pretty tough with the ball, too.

It's unreasonable to expect that every night from such a young player, but Mardesich is a real big man, a center who plays like a center instead of a converted power forward, and given Williams' history of developing centers, the Terps might have a major player.

Throw senior forward Rodney Elliott into the mix -- he is only having a huge season as a starter after three years of coming off the bench -- and the Terps have a lot of weapons inside.

Watching them outrebound Florida State and North Carolina in recent games was testimony to their power.

Whether Ekezie and Mardesich can continue to deliver such performances is the issue, and we'll see if they can. But if they do, look out.

The win over Carolina also was notable for other reasons. Freshman Terence Morris continued his steady improvement. Terrell Stokes continued to play almost error-free at the point, in contrast to his earlier struggles. Laron Profit shot poorly again, but he is delivering so many rebounds, steals, assists and clutch baskets that his shooting slump is starting not to matter.

Put simply, the Terps ran eight deep with big-time players Wednesday night, offering a threatening balance of size, power and quickness.

They have often managed not to play up to that potential this season, but now, with three wins in a row, including the dunk of Carolina, they have revealed their true identity.

There's a good team in there -- maybe even a really good team, if all goes well.

All they have to do now is prove it every night.

Pub Date: 1/16/98

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