Francis Era gets off to big start

November 15, 1998|By KEN ROSENTHAL

COLLEGE PARK -- All right, nothing could top Joe Smith's jaw-dropping college debut in 1993 -- an epic 26-point, nine-rebound performance in a nationally televised 84-83 overtime victory over Georgetown.

Steve Francis arrived with far greater fanfare. He faced a far lesser opponent. But he made his first game at Maryland downright electrifying, anyway.

He is all that, folks.

All that, and maybe more.

Point guard, shooting guard, it doesn't matter. Francis is Maryland's best player, and this indeed looks like coach Gary Williams' best team in his 10 years at College Park.

A 113-46 victory over Western Carolina means nothing, but the Terps go a legitimate nine deep. Francis and Terence Morris are such breathtaking talents, Laron Profit and Obinna Ekezie might not even be the stars anymore.

"Sometimes, I felt like a spectator tonight, watching other guys make plays," said Profit, who finished with 14 points. "I felt like I should have bought a ticket."

The excitement surrounding this team is overwhelming -- how often do the Terps draw a sellout crowd of 14,500 for a Southern Conference stiff? But Francis alone might justify Maryland's No. 6 ranking.

He starts and finishes alley oops, drives for layups, even blocks shots. He is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive ah, forget it, Superman couldn't guard him.

A little carried away? Of course. But no matter how long the Francis Era lasts -- the transfer from Allegany College entered Maryland as a junior -- it promises to be one of the most exciting in school history.

"He's a really good player," Williams said. "He likes playing with our guys. One of the things about good players -- they have to have other players, or else they don't look as good.

"If he makes a pass, I think we can catch it and make a play. It doesn't become a turnover. He sees the court well. Our guys are starting to figure out if they get open, they've got a chance to score."

Francis finished with 17 points and nine assists last night, shooting 8-for-10, with his only two misses coming from three-point range. He does so many things well, he elicits roars for baskets, assists, blocks, even specific moves.

Best of all, he seems to have blended in perfectly. The Terps played with stunning unselfishness, considering that they're incorporating four new players. The positive chemistry starts with Francis and senior point guard Terrell Stokes.

"He calls me 'Young Buck.' I'm like his understudy," Francis said. "He's teaching me a lot as far as running the offense, different looks on defense that they'll throw at you. He's helped me out tremendously."

Stokes (15 assists) knows that he could lose playing time to Francis at the point, but he's exhibiting a mature and refreshing outlook as he begins his final season at Maryland.

"I've been here four years. I've been through the wars," Stokes said. "I learned from Duane [Simpkins]. He's thinking, 'I'm going to learn from Terrell.' And I'm going to help him.

"I want him to do do well. Next year, he can run the show. We've just got to keep it going, keep the tradition going right down the line."

Of course, next year might be this year, and Francis might leave Maryland after only one season, but never mind. Williams' biggest problem -- if it is a problem -- might be finding enough minutes for deserving players.

The Terps are so athletic, they've got several players who can play multiple positions, giving Williams more flexibility than ever before. He hasn't even unveiled his big lineup yet -- the 6-foot-3 Francis and 6-5 Profit in the backcourt, 6-9 Morris, 6-10 Ekezie and 7-0 Mike Mardesich up front.

The new kids?

Redshirt freshman Juan Dixon hit four three-pointers last night. Two true freshmen -- swingman Danny Miller and power forward Lonny Baxter -- both look like they can play.

For now, Williams will alternate Francis between point guard and shooting guard, giving him as many minutes as possible. Francis can create from either position, but ultimately the ball must be in his hands. He can dominate from the point.

It's early, so Williams is keeping his options open. He might need Francis on the wing if Dixon and Miller develop slowly. Or, he might continue using Francis at both guard spots, giving Stokes 20-25 minutes per game.

Stokes' average minutes dropped from 33.3 to 28.1 last season, and a further reduction might keep him fresh, make his deficiencies seem less glaring. Heck, how many better backup point guards are there in the ACC?

Whatever, it all should sort out in the next six weeks, when Maryland could face either UCLA, Xavier or Kentucky at the Puerto Rico Shootout, followed by Wake Forest, Stanford and Kentucky.

The ACC schedule begins in earnest Jan. 3 against Duke, and that will be the true test for Francis, who basically has spent the last two years playing pickup ball.

Who cares?

He is all that, folks.

All that, and maybe more.

Pub Date: 11/15/98

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