7 feet of patience Mardesich: Refusing the Terps' plea to play as a freshman, the center proves to be worth the wait with 3 years to go.

January 21, 1998|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- Did you hear the one about the player who had to tell his coach to be patient?

At the start of last season, after a look or three at a big freshman who had been tagged as a project, Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams asked Mike Mardesich if his intent to redshirt in 1996-97 wasn't a mistake.

Williams saw a 7-footer who could immediately fill out a thin front line, but Mardesich had a different perspective, one that included being relegated a few years earlier to the JV at his Houston high school.

As a junior.

"I've always played basketball, I just had never been any good," Mardesich said. "I had some good skills, but I was uncoordinated as a kid. I could pass and shoot, but I couldn't run or jump. I was horrible on the break. I couldn't dunk until midway through my junior year, and I was 6-9. It wasn't a pretty sight."

The view from the floor at Cole Field House last Wednesday was breathtaking. Mardesich and his teammates were mobbed by hundreds of fans celebrating an upset of then-No. 1 North Carolina, one that probably would have been a loss without 34 minutes and an assortment of big plays from the reserve center.

Being a team player, Mardesich struggled along with his mates in a loss at Wake Forest on Saturday, but heading into tonight's game at Georgia Tech (9 o'clock, Ch. 54), Maryland (10-6, 3-3) is still in third place in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

The Yellow Jackets (12-5, 2-3) use four freshmen in an eight-man rotation, the best being 6-5 guard Dion Glover. Duke's Shane Battier is Glover's competition for ACC Rookie of the Year, but a few more games like the one he had against the Tar Heels, and Mardesich could achieve a personal goal and be listed with those Parade All-Americans on the All-Rookie team.

"Sometimes I'm surprised by what I'm doing," Mardesich said, "but I've always set high goals for myself."

Mardesich's self-esteem is not reliant on basketball. He scored 1,300 on the SAT, turned down admission to Harvard and is in an honors program at Maryland, where his major is International Business.

Mardesich's fascination with the French language dates to his kindergarten days in California, where he was born. His father immigrated to the United States from Croatia, and the family lived in that country for several years in the 1980s.

They returned to the States, and Mitch Mardesich's business took the family from Boston to Houston, where Mike grew six inches in 18 months. After that junior season on the JV, Mardesich did star as a senior at Conroe High. He was one of the top players in the Houston area, and it's inaccurate to say that Maryland was the only major-college program to recruit him.

Several Big 12 schools were interested, but Mardesich told them he wanted another year of polish, which he got at Worcester (Mass.) Academy.

"My husband was a late bloomer, and Mike knows he's still growing," Renee Mardesich said of her son. "He's just now shaving. Physically, Mike was a young 17 when he got out of high school. When we came back from Europe, he was placed in a gifted and talented program, and skipped a year in school. He got that year back at Worcester."

Mardesich averaged 33 points and 18 rebounds in his last five games at Worcester during the 1995-96 season, but never wavered in his intent to sit out a year at Maryland. The plan was backed by his parents, who moved from Boston to Bethesda to support his college career. Curt, a younger brother, is a senior at Archbishop Carroll High in Washington.

The freshman spotlight this season was on Terence Morris, but then came a recent three-game winning streak, which culminated against North Carolina and Player of the Year candidate Antawn Jamison. They played overtime because Mardesich scored on a put-back with 40 seconds left in #i regulation. He had 12 points, nine rebounds and figured in the defense that held Jamison without a basket in the last 19 minutes.

Before that, there were four baskets, including a 15-footer from the baseline and a soft, left-handed hook, crammed into an eight-minute stint at N.C. State, and 10 rebounds against Florida State. Most recently, he had five fouls and no points in the Wake Forest loss, a reminder that maybe Mike knew best about last season.

"I would have loved to have played last season, but I still thought I needed more experience," Mardesich said. "When I started improving, the coaches kept on saying I was ready, but I wasn't sure.

"Playing with Obinna [Ekezie], Rodney [Elliott] and Keith [Booth], that made a difference. Especially Keith. He's not the biggest guy, but he's the toughest I've ever played against. He used to pound on me every day. Being able to take a bump and still make a jump shot was something I had to develop."

Ekezie said the improvement wasn't a one-way street. "When I play a 7-footer now, I'm used to it," he said. "I get that look every day in practice, so I'm used to putting more elevation on my jump shot."

Mardesich is averaging 5.9 points and 5.1 rebounds in just under 19 minutes a game, but the number that Williams likes best is three. That's how many seasons of eligibility he has remaining after this one.

"I might have been a little bit selfish," Williams said of his effort to get Mardesich to play last season. "We needed another big man. When Obinna went out, Rodney had to play center. Some games last year we got so small, Mike would have given us five more fouls, but I'm glad he sat out now.

"I understand his position, and that of his parents. If it was my son, I probably would have felt the same way. It took a while for me to accept that."

It's one debate Williams is glad he lost.

Pub Date: 1/21/98

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