COLLEGE PARK -- Did anyone take the bitter end of Maryland's 1998-99 basketball season as hard as coach Gary Williams?
Absolutely. Just mention St. John's to Mike Mardesich.
Williams had seven months to reflect on the Terps' most frustrating Sweet 16 loss yet. Though the manner of Maryland's elimination from the NCAA tournament was demoralizing, the long night in Knoxville, Tenn., was a sophomore slump in miniature for Mardesich, who felt on the fringe of the party during one of the Terps' most celebrated seasons.
"All the things the fans say, or the coaches, that doesn't matter as much as what I want for myself," said Mardesich, a 7-foot redshirt junior center. "When I got here, I envisioned a certain type of career. When it doesn't go the way you expected, there's a change. It's much harder to let yourself down than let anybody else down."
For the first time since March, the Terps will take on an opponent tonight at 8 at Cole Field House, where they begin a two-game exhibition schedule against the Down-Under Bandits of Australia. Mardesich is the first big man off the bench in a revamped lineup, and he's eager to move beyond last season.
Mardesich said he hasn't gotten over the way Maryland, the No. 2 seed in the South Regional, meekly bowed out of the NCAA tournament, and seemed oblivious to the fact that All-Americans Steve Francis, Terence Morris and Laron Profit shot a combined 10-for-30 against St. John's.
All acquiesced during a scoreless drought over the last 8: 25 of the first half. The slide began on a missed layup by Mardesich. A failed put-back on a later possession left Mardesich 1-for-3 from the field, a line that wasn't an anomaly in a season when his field-goal percentage dipped to .350. In the biggest game of the season, he played 10 minutes before the break, none after.
"If I could have been more forward, more imposing, then I would have been able to do something in the second half for us," Mardesich said. "Not being able to help us was the worst thing. Given the opportunity, and then watching it all go down the tubes, that was horrible."
Mardesich's confidence was shot long before the postseason.
A bright 22-year-old who is close to fulfilling the requirements for an international business degree, Mardesich could finish with a triple major, because he's also done extensive course work in marketing and logistics and transportation. He turned down admission to Harvard, but sometimes his intellect works against him.
"In this game, you have to rely on muscle memory and instincts," Mardesich said. "If you analyzed every situation, you would slow yourself down and start to second-guess. That's not the way to be successful. When you're having fun, you don't think, you just go out and play. When you're not having fun, you start thinking a lot.
"Everyone wants to feel a part of the team. There were a lot of things happening last year, and I felt my role dwindling. You ask yourself why things are happening, and the answer is, `You're not producing.' Well, I should have produced. It kind of snow-balled to where every shot became so important."
As he turned what could have been dunks into layups and layups into fadeaway jumpers, Mardesich saw his minutes shrink. By the time Obinna Ekezie's career was ended by an Achilles' tendon injury in early February, Lonny Baxter had climbed above Mardesich.
"Last year, Mike lost his confidence; there isn't any doubt about it," Williams said. "Mike can't take every missed shot personally. Sometimes, Mike feels if he misses a layup, he's not a good player. Every good player misses. He's a junior, so he has time to get it back. At 7 feet, 250 pounds, we need him. We need him to be the player he was his freshman year."
Senior assistant coach Billy Hahn has told Mardesich to draw strength from his successes, the most memorable being a giddy January night in 1998, when he and Morris were freshmen and North Carolina was No. 1. The Tar Heels left Cole with their first loss, after a Mardesich put-back forced overtime. He finished with 12 points and nine rebounds.
"That just seems like a long time ago," said Mardesich, who heard a few fans boo when he was introduced at Midnight Madness.
The day before, Mardesich talked about forcing Williams to start him, but he'll be a reserve. After Morris, sophomore center Baxter could be Maryland's best offensive option. Williams also will start sophomore Danny Miller at small forward, sophomore Juan Dixon at shooting guard and freshman Steve Blake at point guard.
Now, Mardesich will see where he fits.
"I don't think I'll be totally comfortable until I have a really good game," Mardesich said. "It's different, playing well in practice and playing well in games. I've always been able to play well in practice or in the summer. Now, it's a question of me doing it in front of the lights."
NOTES: Tickets are available for tonight's exhibition. Williams said he'll "try to sub like I would a regular game," and freshman Drew Nicholas will be the first guard off the bench. Nicholas suffered a broken bone in his left hand in September, but he's been practicing without a brace since Friday. Tahj Holden, another rookie, is the eighth man, and that's how many players Williams prefers to use. Dixon's aunt, Sheila Dixon, became the Baltimore City Council president-elect yesterday. She's part of the extended family that helped him through Calvert Hall and to Maryland. The Terps open Nov. 17 at Cole against San Francisco in the 16-team Preseason NIT.