Now is time for Francis to shed shell

January 02, 1999|By JOHN EISENBERG

COLLEGE PARK -- Steve Francis has performed numerous feats of magic for the Maryland Terrapins in just 14 games. A highlight reel of his best drives and dunks is evidence of that.

Now it's time to see if he can perform the kind of magic the Terps and their fans really want. It's time to see if he can lead the Terps to new heights in college basketball's order.

Can they draw even with Duke? Pass North Carolina? Win the ACC tournament? Give Gary Williams his first trip to the Elite Eight or (gasp) beyond?

They have their best chance in years to reach such goals, starting with tomorrow's game against Duke at Cole Field House, and while their enviable array of quickness, depth, experience and balance are key reasons, it's Francis' presence that gives them the potential to do more than any Maryland team in recent memory.

His top-draft-pick-caliber talent levels the playing field for the Terps against traditional powers such as Duke, which is 11-2 at Cole since 1985.

Sure, the Terps can still win tomorrow without a monster game from Francis, who has a team-high 16.9 scoring average. And they'd be foolish to change any of the patterns they have established in winning 13 of 14 games to arrive at a No. 4 national ranking.

"That's where you can get a little crazy, when you start thinking that you have to step up your game or whatever," Williams said. "I don't want Steve or any of our players thinking that. We have to believe that what we have done so far is good enough. You just have to believe in yourself that way."

But let's be honest. Francis can dominate games to a far greater degree than he has shown. More than a few NBA general managers would take him and start him right now, if, of course, their league was operating instead of self-destructing.

It's time for the Terps to unleash such an asset. Who knows how long they'll have it?

"Duke has always had that kind of player, with [Grant] Hill and [Trajan] Langdon and others, guys you can give the ball to on any possession and have a good chance to score," Williams said. "Steve gives us that. And he likes that situation. Some guys don't like the pressure of being looked on to score. He can handle it."

Francis has excelled in his major tests so far, scoring 24 points against Stanford and 25 against Kentucky after a rough first half. He carried the Terps almost by himself as they cut a 17-point Kentucky lead to four late in the second half, proving that his game alone is enough to keep the Terps from getting blown out, unlike against Duke last year.

Does Francis have that higher gear he can call on when necessary?

"I think so," Francis said. "But everybody on this team has another gear. All the games we have played so far were just to get us ready for the ACC season. I hope we're ready to step up."

Francis has spent the nonconference season mostly learning when to cut, move and shoot, which is surprising given how well he has played. He's a junior, but he's still a rookie in Williams' program and he's being asked to learn both backcourt positions.

"He's still new to what we do,, and we're asking him to learn a lot," Williams said. "In terms of learning, he's like a freshman. He's going to get a lot better. More comfortable. When we play five or six more games, he'll be much more comfortable. I've seen him pass up shots because he's not sure if he should shoot in certain situations, and that'll get worked out."

You begin to understand why Francis has debuted in such a relatively low-key fashion, attempting a modest 11 shots a game and seldom trying to dominate.

"I'm just getting around to fully executing the offense," Francis said. "Learning two positions has been hard. I'm just now getting to the point where I can keep my turnovers down."

There's no doubt the Terps have allotted him more room in their offense than he has taken so far. Williams said after the Stanford game "there are still things we're working on."

It's time to break them out.

Not that anything is on the line tomorrow other than the Terps' confidence, which is high enough anyway, deservedly, and would soar with a victory over Duke.

They mostly need to win to prove to themselves that they can beat Duke later in the season, when games matter more.

Still, this game is one of the biggest in years at Cole, the first matchup of top four teams since 1973.

"It's great to be in a situation to have a game like this," Williams said. "It hasn't always been that way."

It is now, thanks as much to Francis as any player. The stage is his. Let's see the show.

Pub Date: 1/02/99

DATELINE: COLLEGE PARK

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