Maryland in good position to keep marching forward

March 21, 1998|By John Eisenberg

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Think about where the Maryland Terrapins began this season. Then think about where they ended.

There's no escaping the conclusion that the Terps had a season that was, well, better than good.

A trip to the Sweet 16 and 21 wins against the nation's toughest schedule was quite a run for a team that wasn't ranked in the Associated Press' preseason Top 25 and was picked to finish fourth in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

It was still the season of a second-tier national power as opposed to a serious contender for the national championship, but it was certainly a step in the direction the Terps want to go.

They needed such a season after ending the past two with first-round losses in the NCAA tournament, and they got what they needed and more.

As Terps coach Gary Williams spoke to reporters after the loss to Arizona in the NCAA West Regional semifinals Thursday night, you could almost see his program's foundation growing firmer under his feet.

"I like what we're doing," Williams said.

It was a scene that has played itself out for five straight years now, with Williams standing in an empty corridor somewhere in the belly of March Madness, assessing his program after the season's last dribble. But this scene was different.

This was about higher standards and a future more promising than the past.

"We're at a point now where we can get two or three recruits a year and continue to be good," he said. "I told the players, 'We go from here.' "

That's what separates this trip to the Sweet 16 from the other two in Williams' nine years at Maryland.

The first one, with Joe Smith at center as a freshman in 1994, served mainly to "put us back on the map," Williams said, after almost a decade of tragedy and transgressions.

The next year, Smith pulled the team back to the Sweet 16 and then sent it crashing when he turned pro and was picked first in the NBA draft.

The Terps are in far better shape now.

They're probably in better shape than at any other time during Williams' tenure, in fact.

For starters, two and maybe three new impact players will join the five core players returning from this year. Freshman swingman Danny Miller and shooting guard Juan Dixon, who was redshirted this season, figure to get real minutes next season. Junior college star Steve Francis could start at point guard if he signs.

And the five returning players offer upside possibilities.

Center Obinna Ekezie has improved every year, but now he needs to learn from his sobering NCAA experience, in which Illinois and Arizona snapped their fingers and made him disappear. If he continues to improve at the same rate, he could have a big senior season.

Swingman Laron Profit could also have a big senior year, although his jumper needs work and he needs to become more consistent in big games.

Most importantly, Ekezie and Profit need to follow the example of this year's senior class and provide positive leadership instead of sulking about their chances of moving on to the NBA.

tTC Point guard Terrell Stokes needs to adopt the same attitude even though he could be in a tough spot for a senior, competing for a starting job if Francis signs. Either way, give him credit for playing well down the stretch this season, with a surplus of assists and a minimum of turnovers.

Reserve center Mike Mardesich? He was better early in his freshman season than late, and he showed his age and limitations with four turnovers against Arizona, but he's going to be useful.

That brings us to the last and most intriguing of the returning players: Terence Morris.

This is a player with huge talent, NBA-caliber talent, the kind that can transform a program. He had a quiet freshman season, befitting his quiet personality, and Williams wisely chose not to rush him to prominence. His defense needed work, anyway.

But he'll move into the starting lineup next season, probably at power forward, so it's time for him to begin fulfilling that vast potential.

One way or another, Williams needs to begin bringing Morris out in the way he brought Smith out as an underclassman.

If that happens, the Terps will be able to match talent with a lot of top teams.

And either way, they'll probably start the year ranked in the Top 10 or very nearly.

"We're going to be good," Williams said.

Someone asked about the rumors that he might head to Arizona State or elsewhere. He shook his head.

"I have never stayed at a place long enough to cement a program like this," he said. "I was four years at American University, four years at Boston College and three at Ohio State before I came to Maryland. I want to see this through."

He still has never taken a team beyond the Sweet 16, a debit on his record that he'll surely continue to hear about.

And if he is going to complete the transformation of the Terps from a scandal-scarred program to one of the elites, he is going to have to break through the limited boundaries of the program's history one of these years and dance big in the big dance.

But what happened this season was a means toward such an end, no doubt about it.

The Terps got tougher this season, tougher and smarter and more confident. They also got more resourceful, adding a 3-2 zone defense and a productive half-court offense to their signature game of pressing and running.

They started the season out of the polls and burdened with two straight bad finishes, and they ended it on the floor with the national champions in the Sweet 16, one point down with 10-plus minutes to play, the future full of promise.

By any reckoning, that's a good season.

Pub Date: 3/21/98

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