Will hot run become big March? Maryland's 7-0 start fueling optimism for chance at NCAA title

November 30, 1998|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

Gary Williams said it was a unique run.

He might have a once-in-a-lifetime team.

In August, the veterans on the University of Maryland basketball team made an NCAA title their stated goal. Williams, the coach, did not discourage the talk, and two dizzying days in Puerto Rico proved that it was not idle bluster.

One day after it dominated No. 10 UCLA, Maryland used a 20-0 run to rip giant-killer Pittsburgh, 87-52, Saturday night in the championship game of the Puerto Rico Shootout.

It was not that close, as the Panthers scored the game's last 11 points but did nothing to slow the Terps' climb in the polls and did bolster the opinion that they are national championship material.

"For November, we're pretty good," Williams said in no small understatement, after a devastating start put the Terps on top of Pittsburgh 46-17 at halftime. "That's probably as good a half as I've ever been associated with."

With upsets disrupting the Top 5, Maryland (7-0) seems likely to move up to No. 2 behind Connecticut. Only Maryland and second-ranked UConn escaped the week unscathed. No. 1 Duke lost to Cincinnati in the Great Alaska Shootout, No. 4 Kentucky to Pittsburgh in Puerto Rico and No. 3 Stanford to North Carolina in the Preseason NIT. The last time the Terps were ranked this high was in 1975-76, when John Lucas and company spent eight weeks at No. 2.

That team slipped some in the Atlantic Coast Conference and ended No. 11. With four newcomers in a nine-man rotation, these Terps are still on a voyage of discovery, but, with their balance and depth, they'll move on with March in mind.

Next up: Thursday's ACC opener at Cole Field House against Wake Forest, then dates against Stanford and at Kentucky that will be more opportunities to quiet the skeptics who think Maryland still hasn't been tested. Williams hears the whispers, and shakes his head at the questions.

"I'd rather be winning by 20 than by two," Williams said. "You learn a lot by winning by 20, if you're playing hard. It's not going to be like this all the time, and we have to appreciate this. We'll have our share of nail-biters, I'm sure of that. I guarantee you, it's going to be tough. It always is when you get into conference play."

It hasn't been yet. UCLA, in a 16-point setback in the semifinals, has been the only foe to get closer than 28 to the Terps. Numbers don't do justice to how well Maryland is playing, but they're a start. Their average margin of victory is 37.1 points. The Terps have made 53.2 percent of their field-goal attempts, and their opponents are at 29.6.

Statistics do not speak of chemistry, however, and the Terps are happy and hungry. Their passing is contagious, and their defensive pressure comes in waves.

Obinna Ekezie never got untracked in Puerto Rico, going 1-for-9 against UCLA and having as many turnovers as points (four) against Pittsburgh, but he laughed the heartiest in the Terps' locker room Saturday night.

Ekezie relaxed in a classroom chair next to Terrell Stokes, the senior point guard who is like the kid at Christmas who doesn't know which gift to open first. Actually, Stokes used an analogy to Minnesota Vikings quarterback Randall Cunningham to explain the options the Terps have, whether in transition or a half-court game.

"I've got Cris Carter on one wing, Randy Moss on the other," Stokes said. "I've got Robert Smith running up the middle. We've got so many weapons, and they don't stop when we go to the bench."

Freshmen Juan Dixon, Danny Miller and Lonny Baxter brought considerable skills. More important, along with junior college transfer Steve Francis, they have also added an edge. The three freshmen are tough customers, and their pleasure is visible when they tag-team opponents whom the starters have left groggy.

With 7-foot sophomore Mike Mardesich showing signs of becoming an intimidator -- how many times did he knock down Pittsburgh guard Vonteego Cummings? -- there have been times when the substitutes have been physically nastier than the starters.

The first five, meanwhile, are relaxed in the collective realization that none of them has to carry a heavy load.

Terence Morris has been superb. The sophomore forward from Frederick is not only the leading scorer (16.8), but also the top rebounder (7.1). Stokes is coming off what might be the best back-to-back floor games he has ever played. Ekezie will be comfortable in more familiar settings, and Laron Profit, as promised, broke out of his shooting slump in style against Pittsburgh.

And Francis, the junior college All-American who was supposed to put the Terps over the top?

He's still learning when and where to stop in transition at the highest level of college basketball, but it's obvious that he loves the arena and will prosper there. He made 14 of his 21 shots against UCLA and Pittsburgh and spelled Stokes some. He leads in one category, and it is significant that it is minutes played.

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