This year, all eyes turn toward Terps Maryland: Being highly ranked is not a burden, Gary Williams says. But can his team use it as a springboard to a first Final Four?

November 13, 1998|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- The Orioles made for a sleepy summer, bowl bids are out of the question and there is no NBA to provide a distraction from the travails of the region's NFL franchises.

"It's amazing how that's all worked," Gary Williams said. "The Ravens were supposed to be better. The Redskins thought they had a playoff team. This year, when we're supposed to be good, other people are struggling. Well, if you want to have a chance to be as good as anyone else, then you have to deal with that fan attention.

"It's great. You wear that. You take it all in. 'Here we are. A lot of people are behind us. Let's go out and show how good we are.' That's got to be our thing this year, to use all of this interest as a positive force. Kentucky, Duke, Carolina, UCLA, they accept that same kind of intense inspection every year, and handle it fine. So we're going to handle it."

Williams wants you to bring your tired, huddled mass down to Cole Field House this winter -- if you've got a ticket. There is keen interest in the Maryland basketball team he coaches, because the Terps are talented and talking like Captain Kirk.

Can they boldly go where no Maryland team has gone before?

Since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, seven programs that had never been there previously have reached the Final Four. Terps fans searching for omens will note the last three all started with the letter M.

Maryland has never visited college basketball's mecca. None of these Terps was alive in March 1975, the last time Maryland got as far as a regional final.

"Someone has to do it, why not us?" said Laron Profit, the wing who's Maryland's most decorated veteran. "The school has never been to the Final Four, but eventually it's going to happen. The same schools usually get there because they have stability. Players have seen that Coach Williams isn't going anywhere, so we're getting better players."

Williams' 10th team at Maryland is his deepest. In a season that opens tomorrow (8 p.m.) against Western Carolina at Cole, what might keep the Terps, No. 6 in the AP preseason poll, from all of their goals?

"Egos," Profit said. "Guys start listening to what they hear and read, and think that talent wins games alone. It's talent and hard work and chemistry that wins games."

Williams is adding four ingredients to five holdovers who got to the NCAA's West Regional semifinals last season, and he doesn't think the mixture will blow up in his face.

He could have a hard choice at the point. In senior Terrell Stokes, Maryland has a survivor whose Atlantic Coast Conference experience is crucial. In junior Steve Francis, however, the Terps have a junior college All-American who might be their most talented option at the position.

A solution is that Francis can also play on the wing. The transfer from Takoma Park and Allegany College in Cumberland has deferred to the seniors and said he'll play anywhere, even if his quickness has been compared to Allen Iverson's and his ability to direct a team to John Lucas'.

A highly regarded national preview, the 384-page "Blue Ribbon Yearbook," tabbed Francis as its national Newcomer of the Year.

"A lot of people have said things about Steve without seeing him play," Williams said. "I don't want Steve to think he has to score 25 points and get 10 assists a game for people to think he's good. He's coming into a pretty good team. It's not like when Joe Smith and Keith Booth came in and they had to deliver. There are already some pretty good players here."

The Terps lost two starters and three players total from the team that was eliminated by 1997 champion Arizona in the Sweet 16. While Francis needs to acclimate himself quickly to the rigors of No. 1 Duke, the rest of the ACC and one of the nation's toughest nonconference schedules, the returnees also have to get better.

Profit has 1,072 career points, but as his average has increased, his shooting percentage has decreased. Williams said: "Whether Laron is a good outside shooter, that's still to be proven."

Stokes' shooting percentage has similarly worsened, but the bigger the game, the better he has been at the free-throw line, a requirement for a ballhandler. He had a career-best 2.2-1 assist-to-turnover ratio last season.

Center Obinna Ekezie came through against Illinois in the second round of the NCAA tournament, converting all six free-throw attempts on three bonus situations in the final two minutes. He was shut out in the first 33 minutes, however, and the 6-foot-10 senior has to use his 262 pounds more consistently.

At the other baseline spot, Terence Morris is ready to come out of his shell. The sophomore from Thomas Johnson High in Frederick is 6-9 and growing, and concerns about his frame are misguided. Morris could emerge at the power forward position as strongly as Rodney Elliott did last season.

If he'll become more assertive.

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