Budding Terps take Utah St. to dance Foes are blind date, but Maryland eager to learn, take 'step No. 1'

Big West champs are 25-7

On roll, 4th-seeded UM out to make name, too, end first-round hex

March 09, 1998|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- The coach isn't Rick Majerus, it's Larry Eustachy.

The campus isn't in Salt Lake City, it's in Logan.

One more thing. It isn't Utah, it's Utah State.

A few at Maryland dropped the State part last night, when the Terps discussed their first-round opponent in the NCAA tournament Thursday in Sacramento, Calif. By today, the fourth seed in the West Region will know plenty about the No. 13.

Utah State has an RPI of 54, which is definitely not cupcake territory. It has a member of the tournament's all-name team, junior forward Pharoah Davis. The Aggies aren't big, with center Donnie Johnson topping the starting lineup at 6 feet 6, but they can get nasty, as they led the nation in rebounding margin last year and allow just 64.3 points per game.

The best player, point guard Marcus Saxon, is talented enough to have signed with Arkansas in 1995, but questions about his junior college transcript made him an Aggie.

Utah State might have been the last name penciled into the bracket, as the Aggies beat Pacific, 78-63, in the championship game in the Big West Conference tournament in Reno, Nev., early last evening. The Aggies are 25-7 overall, loaded with transfers, and they have Cinderella written all over them.

"We've set a school record for wins and we're going to the NCAAs," Eustachy said. "We're happy but not satisfied. We think we can go beat somebody."

That somebody would be Maryland, which is out to clear up its own murky identity in the NCAAs.

This will be a school-record fifth straight NCAA appearance for Maryland. Only 10 other programs have that kind of streak going, North Carolina being the only other one from the Atlantic Coast Conference.

The Terps will be reminded, however, about some less pleasant distinctions. They were the only No. 5 seed to lose in the first round last year. They have been upset in their NCAA opener each of the last two seasons.

"You don't have to remind them about that," coach Gary Williams said. "That hurts us to a man. That motivates us, and you don't have to call on that. It's been in the back of everyone's mind."

After falling to Santa Clara in 1996 and the College of Charleston last year, the Terps shouldn't have any difficulty focusing on the opening round. Junior forward Laron Profit couldn't resist a look at the big picture, however, which on paper would include Illinois in the second round, then defending champion Arizona in the Sweet 16.

"Me, Obinna [Ekezie] and Terrell [Stokes] haven't won anything yet," said Profit, who nonetheless talked about the Final Four. "I'm ready to get to San Antonio. To get there, we have to beat Utah State, and that's step No. 1."

Profit and the Terps are still smarting from Saturday's overtime loss to the Tar Heels in the ACC semifinals, which ended Maryland's first four-game win streak of the season.

"This whole tournament is about who's playing better at this time of year," Profit said. "Last year, we were kind of fading. This year, we're definitely coming on."

Maryland (19-10) was seventh in the RPI the last few weeks, which by computer logic said it should have been a No. 2 seed. It beat two of the No. 1 seeds, Kansas and North Carolina, but Williams put the best possible spin on his team's No. 4 and being sent to the West for the third time in four years. Hadn't he hoped for the Midwest, say Chicago?

"The only negative is for our fans," Williams said about being sent to the Arco Arena. "In terms of being able to prepare, it's a good situation. As far as not getting a No. 3 seed, our number of losses, that scares people."

Maryland had the nation's toughest schedule, but Utah State got some nonconference notice in the preseason NIT. Eustachy took a team with nine new players and won at Minnesota, then lost by 11 at Florida State when the Seminoles were playing giant-killer. The Aggies beat Brigham Young, lost at Utah and outran Long Island.

They got Ekezie's attention yesterday, when they beat a Pacific team that has a dominant center in Michael Olowokandi. Profit should know that they've already got a guy going to the Final Four, as small forward Kevin Rice will be one of the participants in a slam-dunk contest in his hometown.

Forget El Nino, jet lag and the fact that the Aggies will have more fans in the stands. Forget promising family and friends that they can see them next week in Disneyland, around the corner from the Arrowhead Pond and a shot at Arizona. That's the approach Rodney Elliott, the senior forward from Dunbar High, will take.

"My next game could be my last," Elliott said. "This time of year, it's one [loss] and done. I don't want to go home early again. That's the attitude I want to get across to this team."

NCAA run

Maryland has made the NCAA for a school-best fifth straight year. A look at the Terps' past four results:

Yr .. ..Seed .. .. ..Region .. .. ..Result

'94 .. ...10 .. .. ..Midwest .. .3rd round

'95 .. .. .3 .. .. ..West .. .. .3rd round

'96 .. .. .7 .. .. ..West .. .. .1st round

'97 .. .. .5 .. .. ..Southeast ..1st round

Pub Date: 3/09/98

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