Don't count out Terps, a new order

March 18, 1998|By John Eisenberg

There are all sorts of reasons to expect the Maryland Terrapins not to beat Arizona in their NCAA West Regional semifinal tomorrow night.

At the same time, this is one of the Terps' better chances to score a major victory that would push them to a higher level in college basketball's order.

If that sounds contradictory and doesn't make sense, well, what does make sense about a tournament in which Kansas and Michigan are out and Valparaiso and Rhode Island are in?

And anyway, this does make sense. Arizona's matchup advantages, a probable fast pace and the Terps' history of hitting the wall in the Sweet 16 suggest the Wildcats will win, maybe easily. But the Terps do have the resources to make them a legitimate candidate for springing an upset.

Of Maryland coach Gary Williams' three Sweet 16 teams, this is the hottest, most experienced, most balanced and most confident, and it has the strongest mental makeup.

That might not matter, but then again, it might.

Yes, Arizona is a brutally tough opponent, a defending national champion with all five starters back, including a pair of All-American guards, Mike Bibby and Miles Simon; the Wildcats have won 22 of 23 games going back to December and they're so quick and potent that they could beat the Terps by 30 tomorrow regardless of how the Terps play.

Yet, the Terps have seldom had so much going for them heading into the regional weekend.

For starters, they have won six of their past seven games and 14 of 19 going back to early January. In other words, their timing is good. They're playing their best ball when it counts.

Williams' Sweet 16 teams with Joe Smith at center weren't peaking in the same way in mid-March.

Nor were they as consistent. These Terps have settled into a steady pattern of jumping to early leads, passing the ball effectively, sharing the scoring load and rotating a series of high-energy defenses (3-2 zone, man-to-man and half- and full-court traps). They have averaged four double-figure scorers over their past seven games.

It's a simple, effective style that has helped deliver five wins over the course of the season against teams that won or shared a regular-season or postseason conference title: North Carolina, Kansas, Temple, Illinois and Utah State.

That success against top opponents has given the Terps more confidence that any Maryland team in recent memory.

Having prospered for the most part against a schedule rated the toughest in all of Division I by the Ratings Percentage Index, the Terps now expect to win big games, as opposed to many of their predecessors at College Park, who crossed their fingers and hoped to win big games.

You could tell the difference when the Terps led North Carolina for 39 minutes before losing in overtime in the ACC semifinals, and also when they calmly broke a tie and beat Illinois in the final 35 seconds of their second-round NCAA game last Saturday.

All along, they thought both games belonged to them.

Why are they so much more confident than past Maryland teams? Because they have walked the walk, beaten No. 1 seeds and conference champions, won on the road in front of hostile crowds. They're for real and they don't need anyone to tell them. They can look it up.

Of course, they also can look up Maryland's NCAA history, which suggests strongly that their season will end tomorrow.

Historically, the Terps are a classic second-tier power, good enough to survive a few rounds of the NCAA tournament, but never more than that. They're 2-5 in Sweet 16 games, with four losses in a row since their last win in 1975. They have never reached the Final Four.

In other words, this year's Terps will tip off tomorrow night knowing that history will review them kindly. A Sweet 16 season is an unqualified success without one more win.

Arizona, meanwhile, is just starting to play for real. The Wildcats aren't excited at all about the Sweet 16. They have bigger things in mind.

"We have four games left as far as we're concerned," Simon said.

Urgency is on their side. And the more urgent team usually wins.

The Wildcats also have guards adept at handling pressure and a hectic style resembling that of Duke, the one team Maryland couldn't handle at all this season. They're a bad style matchup for the Terps.

Advantage, Arizona.

But we know the advantage belongs to Arizona, right? That's no secret. That's not the point.

The point is that advantages sometimes don't matter in the NCAA tournament, where crazy things happen, like Valparaiso, and the Terps have the look of a team capable of such craziness this season, for one of the few times in recent years.

Remember, Arizona was regarded as an overrated, underachieving program until it up and won the national title a year ago. Now the Wildcats are a feared power.

So things do change. You can change your place in college basketball's order. Overcome the lessons of history. All it takes is one big moment.

No, the odds aren't good that the Terps will make this their big moment.

On the other hand, if that moment is ever going to happen, now is a pretty good time, with a pretty good team.

Terps vs. top seeds

How Maryland fared vs. No. 1 seeds in this year's NCAA tournament

Date .. .. Opponent .. Result

Dec. 7 ... Kansas . .. W, 86-83

Jan. 3 ... Duke ... .. L, 104-72

Jan. 14 .. N. Carolina W, 89-83*

Jan. 29 .. Duke ... .. L, 89-59

Feb. 14 .. N. Carolina L, 85-67

March 7 .. N. Carolina L, 83-73*

* -- Overtime

Pub Date: 3/18/98

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