Terps' task is no given Puerto Rico upsets show UM it can't look past 1st round

November 26, 1998|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Nine players, three games, three days.

The Puerto Rico Shootout was designed with depth like Maryland's in mind, but the Terps understand that they can't be thinking about a UCLA semifinal or a title game against Kentucky.

Try this cautionary tale on for size: American University of Puerto Rico 64, Arkansas 59. Or this one: AUPR 88, Alabama 79.

Those upsets occurred in holiday tournaments here last season, and the local heroes will try to notch another today at 1: 30 p.m., when they meet Maryland in the first round of the eight-team Puerto Rico Shootout. The host team has yet to play, coach Pep Carlos lost his top six scorers and his roster lists no one over 6 feet 5, but the Terps are on the other guy's turf.

"It's like a high school gym," Maryland coach Gary Williams said of 2,500-seat Eugenio Guerra Coliseum. "We're out of our environment, on their campus. It's one of those things, if you're not ready to play, things can go bad. I still told our guys, let's face it, if we're at the top of our game, that should be enough."

Enough to advance to tomorrow's semifinals, most likely against freshman-fueled UCLA. The other half of the draw features defending NCAA champion Kentucky and Xavier, and No. 5 Maryland (4-0) is eager to see how it really stacks up after four straight blowouts at Cole Field House.

An average margin of victory near 40 points has given Williams ample opportunity to mesh four newcomers with five returnees in a rotation that has Maryland mentioned as Final Four material. Williams isn't thinking that far ahead, but he did call the Puerto Rico Shootout "a good rehearsal for the ACC tournament."

The Terps will be booed in Charlotte in March, just like they'll be booed today in Bayamon, a suburb west of San Juan.

There wasn't much to give thanks for here two months ago, when Hurricane Georges sent more than 30,000 to shelters and damaged resort hotels that haven't reopened. It also caused severe damage to the AUPR court, as standing water warped areas of the floor, which had to be sanded and repainted.

The court is smaller than Cole's, so while the Terps' pressure could be even more stifling, it will be easier for the home team to collapse on senior center Obinna Ekezie. Whether on land or sea, or at the University of Mars, Williams' guys think they can dominate. With their balance, you won't stop Maryland by stopping one player.

"The best thing we have going is that we've had a lot of ways to score so far," Williams said. "Terence Morris has been our most consistent scorer, but Steve Francis, Obinna Ekezie, Laron Profit, those guys are capable of scoring 20 on a given night. We need four or five guys in double figures every game with this stretch coming up."

Even for Williams, it's hard not to look past today's game, and Puerto Rico. By Dec. 12, Maryland will have opened its ACC schedule against Wake Forest, faced No. 3 Stanford and gone to Kentucky. By the way, from Morris' 18.8 to freshman guard Juan Dixon's 10.0, Maryland has five players averaging in double figures.

"We can't escape our schedule," Ekezie said. "We think we have a good team, and now we're going to play some of the best teams in the country. This is our first time on the road, and the most important thing we can do is come out strong, not put our new players in a pressure situation. That's the most important thing, making those guys comfortable."

Other than a sore left knee for guard Terrell Stokes, the Terps appeared at ease yesterday. Ekezie was getting ready for some work with an aerodynamics textbook. All were mixing with old acquaintances at the tournament headquarters. In three games in as many days, they'll have a better read on how good they really can be.

Pub Date: 11/26/98

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