Maryland emotionally bruised, but No. 3 seed powerful salve

March 13, 2000|By Ken Rosenthal

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Strip away the emotion -- the anger over the officiating, the frustration over Danny Miller's injury, the disappointment of losing the ACC tournament final -- and Maryland is still in an enviable position.

The Terps are a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament after yesterday's 81-68 loss to Duke. And though they would have preferred to win their first ACC tournament since 1984, they probably would have been a No. 3 even if they had beaten the Blue Devils.

Loser's talk? Perhaps. But considering the ACC's fall from grace, it's difficult to imagine that the NCAA tournament committee would have vaulted Maryland over any of the No. 2 seeds -- St. John's, Temple, Iowa State and Cincinnati.

For the second straight year, the ACC received only three bids -- as many as the Atlantic 10, fewer than six conferences. And Maryland probably would have been a No. 4 seed if not for the string of upsets in conference tournaments.

Is all that enough to diminish the sting of yesterday's defeat?

Not quite. But almost.

"I'm not a good loser," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "But this helps."

Certainly, going from 0-3 in the ACC to a No. 3 seed in the NCAA is no small achievement. And Maryland can take comfort knowing Miller is expected to return for Thursday's first-round game against Iona after sitting out the second half yesterday with a sprained left ankle.

The Terps should have little trouble with Iona -- Jeff Ruland will be coaching, not playing. Their likely second-round opponent is No. 6 seed UCLA. Their possible Sweet 16 opponent is No. 2 Iowa State.

UCLA has won six straight games since sophomore forward JaRon Rush returned from his 24-game suspension, including an overtime victory at Stanford. Iowa State won the Big 12 regular-season and tournament titles while going 29-4.

But why shouldn't this be the year Williams reaches his first Elite Eight?

Iowa State's Marcus Fizer might be the next Charles Barkley, but Maryland's four previous Sweet 16 conquerers -- Michigan, Connecticut, Arizona and St. John's -- were more imposing. Remember, this is a team that beat Duke at Duke, and again played the NCAA's top seed tough yesterday.

The Blue Devils' halftime lead was only one point, but the loss of Miller disrupted the Terps' rotation, and Duke's two freshmen starters, point guard Jason Williams and center Carlos Boozer, dismantled their defense.

Williams repeatedly blew past freshman counterpart Steve Blake, scoring a season-high 23 points after combining for just 15 in the previous two meetings. Boozer was nearly as dominant, scoring 21 points.

Duke clearly was superior, but conspiracy theorists in College Park will have a field day analyzing this game. The Terps shot only two free throws before the final 1: 26 -- a shockingly low total for a team that averaged 20.5 attempts this season, and 18 in its two previous games against Duke.

One sequence could even qualify as Maryland's answer to the Zapruder film.

With 8: 54 left, Terence Morris scored on a putback to pull the Terps within 56-52. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski then took a 30-second timeout to remind referee Karl Hess of Maryland's second-half foul total, raising one finger and screaming, "One foul! One foul! One foul!"

Ten seconds later, Tahj Holden was called for a hand-check. Twenty-five seconds after that, Juan Dixon was called for an offensive foul.

Here's Oliver Stone:

"We couldn't get to the line all day," Gary Williams said. "We weren't taking it strong enough to the basket, I guess. That's been a big part of our offense all season, and it wasn't part of it today."

Questionable officiating is never an excuse, especially when a team loses by 13 points. But the Terps took 71 shots against a team that contests virtually every attempt, and went to the line a total of eight times.

How did Duke play such remarkably clean defense?

"[The Terps] score a lot in transition," Krzyzewski said. "They either hit a lot from the outside, or [go to] Baxter inside. If you can deny Baxter the ball somewhat, you get yourself out of potential foul trouble. He's the guy who you foul.

"Our defense was good, but it gave up some open looks. Morris really hurt us in the first half. They had some open looks in the second half that they just missed."

True enough -- Morris shot 6-for-16 and Baxter 4-for-15, missing as many shots as he had in his previous four games. But the 15-2 discrepancy in free-throw attempts over the first 38 1/2 minutes was rather glaring.

Would Williams have preferred Maryland to take fewer jump shots?

"No," he said, "we would like to have taken more free throws."

Well, Thursday is another day, and the opponent will be Iona in Minneapolis, not Duke in Charlotte. With Miller back, Williams will have no need to play three freshmen together as often as he did in the second half yesterday.

"I told our guys in the locker room, this is Step One," Williams said. "Sometimes you have to go through this before you get to where you want to get to."

It's a painful lesson for a young team to learn, but by today, the disappointment over the ACC will fade, and the excitement over the NCAA will start to rise.

Strip away the emotion, and Maryland is in an enviable position.

A more enviable position than it ever imagined.

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