Terps must water seed this time

March 09, 1998|By John Eisenberg

COLLEGE PARK -- How thin is Maryland's margin of error in the NCAA tournament?

Well, the Terrapins don't have a margin of error in their first-round game against Utah State.

They have to win, it's as simple as that.

So, like, that's pretty thin.

The Terps might not like hearing that, but they just have to live with it after two straight first-round losses to lower seeds. Santa Clara was strike one, College of Charleston strike two and you know what comes next.

Not that the program would fold if the Terps lost again. Shoot, the program can't fold now; what would we do with that new on-campus arena?

But a loss to Utah State would be devastating. The Terps would become a local laughingstock for never deliver ing when it matters, not being able to breathe in the clutch, etc. The wins over Kansas and North Carolina this season? The 10-6 ACC record? Forgotten.

Fans and alumni would become more cynical, recruits would become more dubious and, worst of all, the Terps' summer vacations wouldn't be quite as much fun.

"That Charleston loss stayed with me last year," Terps guard Terrell Stokes said last night. "There were times over the summer when I'd go, 'Man, how did that happen?' We all kind of went through that.

"We have to do better this time. We just have to win."

Laron Profit agreed.

"The last thing we want," Profit said, "is one of those 'can't win the big one' reputations.' "

Well, not to be catty, but the Terps sort of already have one of those reputations. That's what happens when you add a Santa Clara and a College of Charleston to your past. Or when you go 14 years without winning an ACC tournament title.

In other words, Terps coach Gary Williams won't have to drive home any messages this week. The Terps remember those first-round debacles. They get it. They know that their reputations are on the line, that a first-round win is their bare minimum requirement this year.

"They know, they know," Williams said last night. "You don't have to remind them. You don't have to talk about it at all. That [Charleston] loss hurt all of us last year, the coaches, the players, everyone. You don't have to call on that memory, that issue. It's there."

It had better be. Because as bad as the Charleston and Santa Clara losses were, a loss to Utah State would be far worse. Why? Because, simply, the Terps are playing so much better this season as the tournament begins.

They have much, much more to lose now.

Last year, you could almost see the upset coming; Charleston was red-hot, underrated, experienced and motivated, and the Terps were tired and one-dimensional.

Two years ago, the Exree Hipp Memorial Senior Class couldn't lose fast enough.

The vibes are entirely different now. These Terps have played on a Top 10 level for several weeks, even with that giveaway loss to North Carolina Saturday. They're passing well and playing hard, shooting jumpers with confidence and getting balanced scoring.

As crazy as it sounds, they're probably a bigger NCAA threat than the Joe Smith teams, which couldn't score from the outside or do much of anything on offense other than throw it to Joe.

These Terps are rising, not falling, as their big moment arrives. They have played the toughest schedule in the country, survived it with 19 wins and, at the very least, turned one prominent, chattering, bald head.

"Maryland can be, to me, an Arizona story this year," said no less than Dick Vitale himself last night on ESPN.

But here's the tricky part: They still occasionally just fail to show up. The game starts, the other team pulls ahead and you can tell almost immediately that the Terps' minds and bodies are FTC elsewhere. It happened twice against Duke and also twice against Wake Forest, which is often enough to raise concerns about it happening again.

That's why the Terps have no right even to talk about a possible second-round matchup with Illinois, or maybe playing Arizona in the Sweet 16.

Let's see them win that first-round game first.

Let's see them lift that dreaded Charleston Curse, then we'll talk.

Make no mistake, their draw is excellent; Utah State has a 25-7 record, beat Minnesota and lost by 11 at Florida State, but they're not as dangerous as College of Charleston. And Illinois is a relatively weak No. 5 seed, coming from the always-overrated Big Ten.

Combine that draw and the way they're playing, and the Terps have a great shot at the Sweet 16.

But remember, this is a team on a three-game NCAA tourna- ment losing streak, a team that hasn't won an NCAA game since 1988 without Joe Smith at center.

This is a team that needs to put up or shut up, in other words.

They have talked a lot about rising through the ACC ranks, playing well against a tough schedule, building the program toward the elite level and not getting enough respect.

That's all fine. But at some point, you have to start winning in the NCAA tournament to prove your point.

For the Terps, that time has arrived.

Pub Date: 3/09/98

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