Terps keep dancing if Stokes leads

March 12, 1998|By John Eisenberg

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- They're four inches taller and 40 pounds heavier at center. Three inches taller at power forward. Two inches taller at small forward. And their three main reserves are a whopping nine inches taller combined.

Size isn't everything, but the Maryland Terrapins are just as quick and way, way bigger than Utah State, their opponent in today's first-round NCAA tournament game at the Arco Arena.

Taking advantage of that size is the issue, and that's why the heat is on junior point guard Terrell Stokes in particular as the Terps try to avoid a third straight first-round upset.

They'll win if they play smart, run their offense and get good shots, and it's Stokes' job to see that happens.

He has done that job well lately; sharp ball movement and open jumpers have underscored the Terps' late-season drive, and Stokes, as the quarterback, has had a lot to do with that.

Many fans and alumni have already replaced him in next year's lineup with Steve Francis, the Allegany Community College star considering signing with the Terps, but Stokes has been solid at the point since emerging from a slump in early January.

That's not to say he has been the player the program thought it was getting when he arrived on campus in 1995 as a first-team high school All-American from Philadelphia. After averaging 8.2 points and 4.5 assists as a sophomore, he has regressed this season in many quantifiable categories; his scoring average has dropped to 5.2 and his shot total has dropped almost 40 percent. His assists are slightly up, his turnovers down.

What does it all mean? The Terps really no longer want him to do anything other than distribute the ball, govern the offense and keep things running. It took Stokes time to adapt to that job description, which is nothing if not a commentary on his career, but he finally has grown comfortable in the role and the Terps are much the better for it.

He isn't a consistent penetrator or dangerous scorer and certainly not a defensive stopper, but he is making few mistakes and running a tight, balanced, pass-happy offense.

Not buying? Consider these totals from Stokes' statistical line over the past three games: 97 minutes, 19 assists, three turnovers.

That's right, three turnovers in 97 minutes of relentless, up-tempo basketball.

If there are any numbers that point to the Terps making noise instead of an early exit in this year's tournament, those are the ones.

Stokes probably will get outscored today by his Utah State counterpart, Marcus Saxon, who leads the Aggies in scoring. But it won't matter if Stokes continues to pile on the assists without making many mistakes. The Terps will roll.

They're not the only tournament team in need of good work at the point, of course; the play of the point guards often is a determining factor in NCAA games. Rarely does a team advance deep into the bracket without a capable catalyst.

By the same token, teams that lose to lower seeds in the early rounds often are those that don't play smart, forget to run their offense, settle for poor shots, fall behind and panic -- teams that appear rudderless, in other words.

Solid play at the point is an insurance policy against an upset.

Goodness knows the Terps know what happens when you get whipped at the point in the tournament. That's the thread connecting their first-round losses to Santa Clara in 1996 and College of Charleston last year. Each of those teams had a point guard now in the NBA.

Two years ago, Santa Clara's Steve Nash destroyed the Terps with a John Stockton imitation that resulted in 28 points and 12 assists. Maryland's senior point guard, Duane Simpkins, just watched him go by. Nash is now playing for the Phoenix Suns.

Last year, College of Charleston's Anthony Johnson, now starting for the NBA's Sacramento Kings as a rookie, had 17 points and nine assists against the Terps. Stokes had seven points and five assists.

Utah State's Saxon is a real talent who could become the third straight point guard to make the pros after taking on Maryland in the first round of the NCAA tournament. That's not a good omen for the Terps.

But the Terps should win this time if Stokes can continue to infuse the offense with the vitality and selflessness it has displayed lately.

Yes, there are other keys to the game for the Terps. Laron Profit, Rodney Elliott and Sarunas Jasikevicius need to continue to shoot well from the outside. Obinna Ekezie needs to establish a more consistent presence in the middle. It would help if Mike Mardesich, who has slumped a bit lately, reasserted himself off the bench.

But mostly the Terps just need to play smart, show patience and utilize their huge size advantage.

Terrell Stokes is the one who can make that happen.

Pub Date: 3/12/98

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