Terps march with caution, confidence

March 16, 2000|By John Eisenberg

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Maryland Terrapins wade into March Madness tonight as the classic vision of a wild card: an overachieving high seed.

Three straight wins and a trip to the Elite Eight isn't an outrageous stretch of the imagination. Nor would a second-round loss to erratic, improving UCLA be particularly embarrassing.

The Terps could go any number of ways, in other words, as a team good enough to think big, but also young enough to get surprised.

The only certainty going into the NCAA tournament is this: A loss to the Iona Gaels in a first-round game tonight at the Metrodome would be the only result guaranteed to tack an ugly punctuation mark on an otherwise uplifting season.

As much as some myopic Maryland fans want to make these above-average Terps into something more than they are, a first-round knockout would be the only real no-no.

The chances of it happening are relatively remote; since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, top-three seeds are 44-16 against their long-shot opponents in first-round games. That's a .733 winning percentage.

On the other hand, 11 "top threes" lost in the first round in the '90s, turning such surprises into a staple of the tournament. Who can forget Coppin State's stirring defeat of second-seeded South Carolina three years ago?

Even more sobering for the Terps, seeded third in the Midwest Regional, at least one No. 3 seed has fallen in the first round in four of the past five tournaments.

"Someone is going to get nailed," Coppin State coach Fang Mitchell said from his office yesterday. "Because some low seed somewhere is going to come in with no fear and get a hot hand going. That's what happened to us."

Mitchell, whose team lost by 28 points to Iona in November, doesn't think the Terps will be the team to get "nailed" in the first round.

"The teams that score these upsets tend to be good at controlling the tempo, like we did against South Carolina, and like Richmond and Princeton did a few times," Mitchell said. "Iona isn't that disciplined. They're good, but it's the kind of up-and-down good that Maryland can handle. I think [Iona] was a good draw for Maryland."

That's as opposed to the Terps' draws when they had some first-round problems of their own a few years ago, losing to Santa Clara and the College of Charleston back-to-back. Both opponents had senior point guards who made the NBA the next year, underscoring Mitchell's argument about the importance of long shots controlling the tempo.

"[Santa Clara point guard] Steve Nash really destroyed us," Terps coach Gary Williams said yesterday.

Iona point guard Jason Young is a senior whose insertion into the starting lineup in January turned the Gaels' season around, but he's a role player who isn't going to come close to dominating in the same way.

And, hey, let's face it, those Terps teams that lost in the first round were veteran-dominated teams that had underachieved, leaving them less confident and more prone to playing scared when challenged in the national spotlight of the tournament.

Certain teams just can't handle playing with everything to lose and nothing to gain except a win being taken for granted.

This year's Terps, who beat Duke on the road and finished second in the Atlantic Coast Conference, seem made of stronger mental fiber.

"Some teams get scared when an `easy' game gets tough, and then they start playing scared, and boom, goodbye," Mitchell said. "I don't see Maryland doing that at all. I like what Gary has done this year. He has that team playing really hard. They always show up. Like he said, he doesn't have any dogs on the team. And there are a lot of dogs at other places out there."

It was telling that the Terps prevailed in a similar, everything-to-lose situation last weekend against North Carolina State in the ACC tournament semifinals. Despite playing poorly, they made enough plays to win.

"This team has done a good job of handling new situations all year, with all the various things thrown at them," Williams said. "I expect that to happen again [against Iona]."

The Gaels are coming in hot, with 14 wins in their past 15 games. They talked the underdog's talk yesterday.

"We're not scared, we're here to win," Young said.

But oddly enough, it doesn't matter whether they're scared so much as whether the heavily favored Terps get scared if the game gets close.

"That fear [of being upset] can determine how you play," Williams said. "Fans love to see those upsets, but as a [high] seed, it's your basic nightmare."

The Terps have earned the right to think big as the tournament begins, even with UCLA and Iowa State possibly in their near future. But first, they need to avoid a repeat of the Santa Clara and Charleston debacles tonight. The first round isn't about playing well or impressing anyone. It's about one thing, and only one thing: avoiding the upset virus certain to strike some high seed somewhere in the next two days.

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