Immaturity betrays Maryland

January 10, 2000|By John Eisenberg

COLLEGE PARK -- On the surface, Maryland's 80-70 loss yesterday at Cole Field House looks like just the latest in a long line of catastrophes for the Terps against Duke.

But this one was different.

The Terps beat themselves this time, raising unsettling questions about the maturity level of a young team that had played better than expected until now.

"When you have an open shot, it doesn't matter who you're playing -- you're still open," Maryland coach Gary Williams said after watching the Terps shoot 14 percentage points below their season average from the field and 22 points below their season average from the free-throw line.

In other words, the Terps had enough open shots to win, but they contracted a case of Duke-itis. They let the occasion get to them.

They psyched themselves out.

It can happen with an inexperienced team, which the Terps certainly are with their four freshman and sophomore starters. But this display was wicked enough that Williams admitted he was concerned.

"Am I worried about our maturity? Sure," he said.

He's already concerned about the team's low-key personality, a reflection of its best player, forward Terence Morris.

"It's not the most demonstrative team I've ever coached," Williams said. "That doesn't make us bad. But we don't have the one guy who gets us flying around."

A larger issue is maturity, or the lack of it. The Terps took solace yesterday in the fact that they also started 0-2 in Atlantic Coast Conference play two years ago and rebounded to go 10-6 and make the Sweet 16. But that team featured juniors and seniors. Without that kind of experience this season, a 10-6 finish will be difficult to reach.

"We're missing guys who were in the program for three and four years," Williams said. "I thought we'd played enough tough games in November and December to get to the point where we were getting used to pressure, but we didn't today."

Not that the Terps played without heart, mind you. They actually handled Duke's pressure better than recent Maryland teams with more talent and experience. Steve Francis never had this many open shots.

True, the Blue Devils aren't quite as strong this season after losing four first-round draft picks to the NBA off last season's powerhouse, but they're hardly slackers with a 11-2 record and No. 8 ranking, and the Terps were their equals in many ways.

Even though the loss was the Terps' sixth straight against Duke and dropped their record to 4-22 over the past 12 seasons, the Blue Devils didn't overwhelm the Terps this time in the usual whirl of superior talent, three-pointers and full-court pressure.

"I liked our defense, and I liked our intensity," Williams said. "But at some point, you have to put the ball in the basket."

Among the Terps' starters, Lonny Baxter missed 16 shots, Juan Dixon missed 12, Morris missed nine, Steve Blake missed eight and Danny Miller missed six.

"It was very, very frustrating," Baxter said. "We certainly had the [open] looks [at the basket]. It was like there was a curse on the rim or something."

The spin in the locker room after the game was that it was just a poorly timed bad day, and maybe that was true to some degree.

"We were a pretty good shooting team until the past two games," Williams said, including last week's loss at North Carolina State in his causes for concern.

But there's also reason to believe the Terps hiccuped yesterday solely because they were playing Duke. They made the kinds of mistakes they hadn't made all season, committing turnovers coming out of timeouts, missing free throws, blowing chances, dropping passes.

The kinds of things an immature team does under pressure.

It's not a surprise that the Terps are fighting such a problem, of course, after losing four starters themselves from last year's 28-win team. Williams warned everyone when the season tipped off that there would be good and bad days, rises and falls, positives and negatives, steps forward and backward.

And Duke games are always good for a step or three backward.

"They're pretty good," Williams said, bristling when asked about the Terps' poor record at home against the Blue Devils. "They lost two games all of last season. This year, they haven't lost any since the first week of the season. That's a pretty good team over there. It's not just us that can't beat them at home. A lot of teams can't beat them at home."

The Terps had a chance yesterday, a better chance than in any of their games against Duke over the prior two seasons.

This time, the shots were there.

"It's what drives you nuts as a coach," Williams said.

Sure, there are a ton of games left and plenty of time for the Terps to regroup and get back to winning. But they're a young team this year, a team that needs experience, a dominant personality and a healthy dose of fire.

Coming back from 0-2 will be a lot tougher this time.

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