With Terps, it's OK to tinker with success

February 07, 1999|By KEN ROSENTHAL

COLLEGE PARK -- Gary Williams knew that something had to be done. And now that he has started Lonny Baxter over Obinna Ekezie, he should not hesitate to keep tinkering.

More minutes for Steve Francis at the point? Yes.

More minutes for Juan Dixon and Danny Miller? When necessary.

No one is suggesting that the Maryland coach rip up a team that reached 20 victories earlier than any other squad in school history.

But as yesterday's 88-72 victory over Virginia showed, even the No. 7 team in the country could benefit from an occasional shake-up.

Williams joked that he benched Ekezie on the advice of Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who sat Elton Brand in December.

The truth is, he deserves credit for making such a bold move with six regular-season games left in Ekezie's college career.

It wasn't an easy decision for a coach who prefers to show loyalty to his seniors. It could even backfire if Ekezie goes into a funk.

The normally stand-up center declined to comment after a solid performance off the bench -- eight points and six rebounds (one more than Baxter) in just 17 minutes.

The trick now is for Williams to handle a difficult situation delicately. To maintain chemistry, he eventually should return Ekezie to the starting lineup, and continue starting his two other seniors, Laron Profit and Terrell Stokes. But that doesn't mean he should be wedded to each for 30 minutes a game.

The seniors can't expect that.

The fans don't seem to want it.

And now Williams has the opening he needs.

Yes, he risks alienating his senior class for the second time in four seasons, raising the question of whether he burns out his players. But the three senior starters appear maxed out, perhaps even distracted. The guess here is that they would be mature enough to handle less playing time.

And if they can't, well, Williams' loyalty should only go so far.

The crowd roared when Baxter was introduced as a starter, and the Terps fed off his energy, especially when the freshman center scored nine of their first 11 points in the second half.

Did you see Francis leap into his roommate's arms after Baxter dunked over two defenders during that stretch? That exuberance was missing in Maryland's back-to-back losses at Wake Forest and Duke.

Ekezie had started 90 straight games dating to late in his freshman season. But he scored only one point in the loss at Wake, had twice as many turnovers (four) as rebounds (two) in the loss at Duke and doesn't finish in transition as well as Baxter.

Williams said he planned no further changes, and did not even know if Baxter would start Wednesday at North Carolina State. But naturally, his players drew greater meaning from such a dramatic move this late in the season.

"It's a weird situation," Profit said. "He [Ekezie] has started for four years. He has been through the ups and downs like all of us.

"He [Williams] did the same thing last year with Terrell, trying to get Terrell going. It's not only Obinna. It's everyone. After two losses, this gives everyone a new frame of mind."

Fear can be a terrific motivator. And everyone should be on edge now.

If Stokes struggles, Williams can move Francis to the point and play Dixon at shooting guard. If Profit disappears, Williams can use Ekezie, Baxter and Terrence Morris up front, or insert Miller at small forward.

Francis had 13 assists yesterday, playing slightly more at the point than usual. He runs the fast break better than Stokes, he's a better penetrator and passer, he gets to the foul line seemingly at will. The ball should be in his hands more often.

This isn't to demean Stokes, who gets the most out of his ability and is 20-4 as the starting point guard. But if you can bench Ekezie, why can't you reduce Stokes' playing time? If anything, it seems the logical next step.

Stokes played 27 minutes yesterday and Profit 26, slightly below their season averages. Miller played 19 minutes and Dixon 18, above their season averages. At this point, a more even distribution of playing time makes sense.

It's February, and three of the Terps' previous four games had been on the road. Baxter scored 14 points on 6-for-10 shooting. Dixon and Miller combined to hit six of 10 three-pointers. Why not just play the three freshmen more?

The question seems obvious, but until yesterday, Williams had used the same starting lineup all season. He was committed to his seniors, reluctant to disrupt a good thing.

"I don't like to change. I hate to change," Williams said. "If you're doing your job [as a coach], you'll find out your rotation when the season starts. I'm probably stubborn along those lines to a fault sometimes.

"I've got a pretty good feel about the guys we have playing. You try to get through to the players that being in the rotation is important. But I know -- and you know -- everyone wants to start."

Well, not everyone deserves to start, even if they've done it 90 straight games. This isn't the NBA, where the best players are always on the court. But it also isn't Biddy Basketball, where playing time is divided more equally.

There's a happy medium in the college game, even with seniors who have done virtually everything asked of them. Williams needs to find that happy medium. He moved a step closer yesterday.

Pub Date: 2/07/99

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