COLLEGE PARK -- Label it phase one of Maryland's master basketball plan.
The Terps begin a season of great expectations tonight at 8 o'clock against Western Carolina. The sold-out game is the first of four straight nonconference contests at Cole Field House, where coach Gary Williams wants to hone the rotation and style of the nation's sixth-ranked ranked team before the competition turns several notches nastier.
"The next two weeks are really important, to get where we want to be," Williams said. "The first four games, I don't know what's going on in the players' minds, but as a coach, you say, 'We have to win these.' You can't afford to lose one of these."
Two weeks from tonight, the Terps will make their way home from the Puerto Rico Shootout. They expect to be 4-0 when they open play there Thanksgiving Day, and that eight-team tournament figures to provide their first serious tests, as UMBC, Hofstra and Duquesne follow Western Carolina into Cole.
The Terps have made a school-record five straight appearances in the NCAA tournament, and another berth is taken for granted before they convert a steal or hit a jump shot.
As was anticipated when Williams completed a recruiting coup last April, junior-college transfer Steve Francis will make his Maryland debut on the wing. The other new starter will be sophomore
forward Terence Morris, as center Obinna Ekezie, wing forward Laron Profit and point guard Terrell Stokes are back in their accustomed spots.
"With Steve and Terrell, you've got two very good ball-handlers," Williams said. "Steve has been able to move to the two-guard spot pretty easily."
Francis was a junior-college All-American for Allegany Community College last season, and is probably the most-hyped newcomer to join the program since Albert King was a freshman in 1977-78. Williams started Juan Dixon over Francis in the first of two exhibitions, but the redshirt freshman from Calvert Hall is under no illusions.
"Sure, I expected that," Dixon said of the starting lineup. "I'm fine coming off the bench."
Outside shooting is one of Williams' concerns. Against the Australian All-Stars and in the first half against the California South All-Stars, Maryland made 23.1 percent (6-for-26) of its three-point attempts. Dixon sparked a 5-for-10 surge in the second half Wednesday.
"We took two free throws in the first half of that game, and 27 in the second," Williams said of the numbers against the California All-Stars. "When they became so concerned about our inside game, we got a lot more open looks on the perimeter."
A more active Ekezie was another point of emphasis in the off-season, and the 6-foot-10 senior brought down 27 rebounds in the two exhibitions. He averaged 6.5 last season.
It's Maryland's first meeting with Western Carolina, which has just one starter back from a team that went 12-15 in the Southern Conference. Forward Dondrell Whitmore averaged 10.6 points and 7.7 rebounds last season. There are eight new players, and 6-9 junior-college transfers Michael Green and Todd Siebert must provide immediate help.
Phil Hopkins is in his fourth season as the Catamounts' coach. In his first, Western Carolina lost by only two points to top-seeded Purdue in the first round of the NCAA tournament in 1996.
Maryland has won 58 straight nonconference games at Cole, the second longest such streak in the nation after Oklahoma State (78). The Terps haven't lost a nonconference home game since Coppin State beat them on Dec. 30, 1989, and the run doesn't figure to be endangered until next season, when Kentucky comes to Cole.
NOTES: The Terps have added a walk-on from Baltimore to their roster. Earl Badu prepped at St. Frances Academy. Maryland is 9-0 in home openers under Williams. The Terps haven't lost a home opener since 1976, when they fell to Notre Dame. Profit needs 10 steals to pass Keith Booth and become the Terps. No. 2 all-time in steals, behind Johnny Rhodes.
Opponent: Western Carolina
Site: Cole Field House, College Park
Time: 8 tonight
Radio: WBAL (1090 AM)
Tickets: Sold out
Pub Date: 11/14/98