Already, Terps talk of crown Basketball veterans to seek a higher level


COLLEGE PARK -- Obinna Ekezie went back to Nigeria this summer, where he rendezvoused with the national basketball team in his homeland. They played in Senegal and Cyprus, and finally at the world championships in Greece.

Ekezie, a Maryland center, wanted to add consistency to his approach and finesse to his game, and prepare for what he hopes will be a long Terps' haul this winter. Besides the regular fare in the Atlantic Coast Conference, there will be Thanksgiving in Puerto Rico and a trip to defending NCAA champion Kentucky, and Ekezie was asked where he expects it all to end.

"Where's the Final Four next year?" he said.

The college basketball champion will be decided in March at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., and Ekezie said he'll be disappointed if his Maryland career doesn't conclude there.

He's just echoing the buzz around a program that has been to the Sweet 16 in three of the past five years, and appears ready to move up at least another step on the NCAA ladder.

That would be to the Elite Eight, which won't be good enough for Ekezie, fellow senior Laron Profit, or Steve Francis, the junior college transfer who will be one of the most hyped newcomers ever to wear a Maryland uniform.

"We talk about winning a national championship," said Profit, the small forward who can play a number of roles in what should be the most flexible team Gary Williams has had in his 10 seasons at Maryland. "We've got athleticism, we've got depth. We've got the size, and we've got enough youth to keep us old guys excited. It looks like a real good blend."

Francis, a 6-foot-3 guard from Silver Spring who needed just one season to construct a legend at Allegany Community College in Cumberland, talks as if Williams has had his ear for years.

"We have dreams of playing in the Final Four and winning it all," Francis said, "but the push has to start in September."

Practice officially opens Oct. 15. Francis was alluding to preseason workouts, which start the week before Labor Day, but it's not as if college basketball players spend the summer at the beach.

Ekezie, who ranked fourth at the world championships in rebounding with an average of 9.6 in five games, wasn't the only Terp to play overseas this summer. Backup center Mike Mardesich and forward Terence Morris were on the team of U.S. collegians which finished second to the Greek National team in the Acropolis Cup in Athens.

Morris, the sophomore out of Frederick's Thomas Johnson High, is 6 feet 9 and still growing. He'll inherit the power forward spot vacated by Rodney Elliott, while shooting guard Sarunas Jasikevicius will be replaced in the starting lineup by Francis.

Without going outside the Capital Beltway, Francis made an impression this summer. He showed up late for the championship game in the Nike "Jabbo" Kenner League, and still dropped in 32 points for Team Source, where Profit was among his teammates.

"I was only with them for about three or four games," said Profit, who earlier worked as a counselor at Michael Jordan's summer camp, where the perks include pick-up games with the host. "Me tTC and Steve, we can play together. We both know how to pass, we're both athletic. It's important that we get a feel for each other now, not in October."

The real bonding has occurred at the university's north gym, where the midday pick-up games get quite serious. While Ekezie traded butts and 'bows with former Terp Evers Burns yesterday, the adjoining court matched up Francis against Lawrence Moten, a former Syracuse star.

Williams is counting on contributions from three freshmen -- perimeter players Juan Dixon and Danny Miller and forward Lonnie Baxter -- who could get the minutes which last season went to LaRon Cephas.

Cephas underwent arthroscopic surgery in May to remove loose cartilage in his right knee.

The pace will be faster and the demands greater on Francis, a junior who has talked of playing only one year at Maryland and leaving for the NBA.

Terrell Stokes, a third senior, is expected to start at the point for the third straight year, but Francis will get minutes there, and attention.

Profit is an honorable mention All-American, but he understands that there will be many inquiries about Francis. Francis, meanwhile, said he hasn't earned anything yet, and that he should be treated like any other rookie.

"Losing teams worry about those things," said Williams, when asked about the importance of keeping egos in check. "If we're going to be good, we've got to be about getting the best team out of the players we have. We have to have people who are mature, who realize what's going on."

Educated opinions are impressed with what Williams has brought together. Sport magazine and Dick Vitale's will tout Maryland as No. 6 in preseason publications. Another ESPN analyst has them No. 5.

"Everyone has Duke or Connecticut on top," Williams said. "Whether they're that much better than anyone else, time will tell. There are probably at least 15 teams with a shot at the national championship."

His players count themselves in that number.

Pub Date: 8/19/98

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