Francis plays percentages on big question

COLLEGE PARK

February 25, 1999|By JOHN EISENBERG

COLLEGE PARK -- The crowd chanted at Steve Francis throughout the second half of the Maryland Terrapins' last home game of the season last night.

"One more year!" everyone roared. "One more year!"

What about it, Steve?

"Irrelevant," he said after dropping 32 points, eight rebounds and six steals on Clemson in Maryland's 77-60 victory at Cole Field House.

Irrelevant? Why?

"Because I know I'm coming back," he said.

You what?

"Right now," he said, "I'm coming back."

Could you, you know, maybe change your mind at some point? When the NBA beckons with many millions, for instance?

"I don't think so," Francis said. "I'm 99.9 percent sure I'm coming back."

Ah, that .1 of a percent. It'll raise a ruckus every time, won't it?

Michael Jordan's first retirement was 99.9 percent certain. That was three NBA championships ago.

In other words, Francis probably hasn't made a decision yet.

There are reasons to believe he might stay, and reasons to believe he might go. But either way, regardless of what ESPN reports without attribution, it's not a done deal.

Contrary to what many have believed all season, he hasn't already decided to leave.

"I told people that awhile ago," Francis said. "I'm just thinking about the season."

Some others aren't. A banner raised last night read "Steve -- Golden State Can Wait."

The Terps and their alumni and fans can only hope that's the case.

Terps coach Gary Williams joked about it last night when asked if Francis was running the offense better now than earlier in the season.

"He is," Williams said, "and I think he'll run it well next year, too."

Ba-dum-bum. That Gary, what a card.

But what else can Williams do but smile with so much at stake? Francis' return would elevate the Terps to a Final Four contender. Few other teams, if any, could match a one-two of Francis and Terence Morris.

Last night belonged to a senior class including Laron Profit, Terrell Stokes and Obinna Ekezie, a class that will leave having made the program better.

"A class of dignity, one that has brought honors to Maryland," Clemson coach Larry Shyatt said.

But inevitably, as has been the case all season, the attention turned to Francis. How can it not?

He brought his "A" offensive game, exhibiting a stunning array of jumpers, dunks and drives that left the crowd roaring. If you missed his soaring windmill jam in the second half, catch the highlights. The old gym almost buckled from the noise.

But while those moves have attracted attention all season, it's the rest of his game that has scouts talking. His unselfishness. His defense. His second effort.

The reality is that Francis probably could have led the nation in scoring this season. He's that good, that explosive. But he has averaged just 11 shots a game.

"He's sacrificed some of his offense for the betterment of the team, no doubt about it," Williams said. "If he had come in and taken 20 or 25 shots a game, it could have hurt us."

Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins said earlier this week, "The goal is to help your team win, not score 30 points and look selfish. I give Steve credit for knowing what it takes to be a winner. And I give Gary credit for getting the point across."

However it developed, it has made the Terps measurably better this season. And you know what? Francis' defense is just as electric as his offense. Just ask Clemson, which couldn't get the ball past half-court at times.

"Where he's been different [than expected] is his defensive toughness," Williams said. "He takes anywhere from a point guard to a small forward and does a good job. He just has great ability in a lot of areas. He really applies a lot of [defensive] pressure."

He's ready for the NBA, there's little doubt of that. The scouts went nuts for him early, cooled when he struggled in January and have come back strong lately, as Francis has raised his game with March nearing.

He'd go high in the first round, which means money, which is going to be hard to turn down in the end.

But who knows what might happen? There also are reasons he should stay. His future is at point guard, a position he has seldom played this season and would inherit next year with Stokes gone.

If he were to play well at the point next season, his stock would rise even higher, if that's possible.

And let's face it, he hasn't totally dominated all season, as some scouts thought he might. He would benefit from a second year at the major college level.

When Joe Smith played his last game at Cole as a sophomore four years ago, a sellout crowd stayed after the game and virtually begged him not to go.

Didn't work.

There was little mention of Francis' situation last night until midway through the second half. Maybe the crowd was trying silent prayer this time, hoping for better results.

But in the end, the emotion of the moment spilled out for all to see.

"One more year!" the crowd cheered.

"Stay Steve," read a banner in the student section.

The odds are 99.9-1 that he will, or so Francis said last night.

Ah, but that .1 of a percent will get you every time.

Pub Date: 2/25/99

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