UM, Holden step onto bigger stage

March 18, 2000|By John Eisenberg

MINNEAPOLIS -- Former Maryland coach Lefty Driesell said he wanted to turn the Terps into the "UCLA of the East" three decades ago, but UCLA, winner of 11 national titles, is now the "Maryland of the West" under coach Steve Lavin -- a good team, a dangerous team, but a Sweet 16 team more than a national championship contender.

The "Maryland of the East" -- Gary Williams' Terps -- probably should beat Lavin's Bruins in their NCAA tournament second-round game tonight.

The Bruins have size and a ton of natural talent, but they're so erratic they needed a late-season run just to make the 64-team field. The Terps have just as many offensive weapons, and they're more consistent.

Still, it's a close call. UCLA is on a seven-game winning streak. The Terps weren't supposed to be this good. Both teams are young. It's March. Who knows what might happen?

This much is certain: Maryland will need to bring its "A" game, which it didn't need in prior years against lesser second-round opponents such as Creighton, Texas and Illinois. And it will need to bring its "A" game with lightly used freshman Tahj Holden replacing Danny Miller, whose sprained ankle was heavily wrapped after the Terps' practice yesterday.

"Maybe Danny can give us some minutes [against UCLA]," Williams said yesterday. "We'd like 15 minutes."

In other words, Williams isn't expecting much, and Holden, who has started all of three games, will have to stand and deliver against one of college basketball's most storied programs. In March, no less.

"Tahj really shouldn't be starting at this point in his career," Williams said, "but when someone is hurting, you have to do things."

It's a set of circumstances that could overwhelm a freshman, but Holden, 18, was hardly a portrait of jangled nerves yesterday.

"I was much more nervous having to do Shakespeare on stage last year without having taken any drama classes," he said.

"That was tough. Anything in basketball is easier by comparison. I can deal with that."

Holden, from Little Silver, N.J., isn't your typical big-time recruit. As a senior at Red Bank Regional High School, he was the president of the student council, performed in "Midsummer Night's Dream" and finished in the top quarter of his class academically.

That rumor that he was also the valedictorian?

"No way, no way," he said. "We had some really smart kids at our school. Some that went to Duke and stuff."

Holden, hardly shrinking in the spotlight, held court for a group of reporters yesterday, at one point expressing his admiration for legendary UCLA coach John Wooden.

"Wait a minute, when were you born, Tahj?" someone asked.

"In 1981," he said with a smile -- six years after Wooden retired from the Bruins.

But, of course, the Terps don't need his acting skills, his political experience or his ebullient personality tonight; they need him to play defense and rebound from the power forward spot, and maybe hit a couple of the smooth jumpers that attracted recruiters from Syracuse and Rutgers as well as Maryland.

That's what he provided as a stand-in for Miller in the Terps' first-round win over Iona Thursday night. Making his first start in 39 days, he produced four points, three assists and three steals in 30 minutes.

Truthfully, the Terps might be better off against UCLA with a lineup that includes Holden at power forward, Terence Morris at small forward and Lonny Baxter at center.

That's a tall, athletic lineup better suited to competing on the boards with the Bruins' stable of top recruits.

When Miller starts at small forward, Morris plays power forward.

"It's true, we might be able to use [the new lineup] to our advantage," Williams said. "We certainly miss Danny, who has been out there playing for two years.

"But we miss him more in the backcourt. We have some depth in the frontcourt [with Holden]. We can give [opponents] some interesting looks."

Even if Miller returns, Williams probably should keep Holden in the starting lineup and bring Miller off the bench, a job Miller excelled at last season before moving into the lineup this season and struggling at times.

In the long run, Miller probably will come off the bench for the Terps after this season. Why not now?

But no matter what Williams does, Holden has to produce after spending most of the season on the bench, averaging 12 minutes and three points a game.

"I'm just excited to get the opportunity," Holden said. "To get it against a team like UCLA in the tournament is really exciting."

Holden isn't necessarily the key to what happens tonight, of course. It's going to be an up-tempo game, a Maryland-style game, so the Terps are going to need what they always get when they win -- scoring from Morris, Baxter and Juan Dixon; heady work at the point from Steve Blake against UCLA's Earl Watson; and most of all, effort on defense.

"UCLA is probably playing as well as any team in the country," Williams said. "But our team has adapted well to new situations all year, and I think we will again."

The newest situation is Miller's injury and Holden's sudden rise to prominence, maybe a little before his time.

But, hey, he survived Shakespeare. How hard could this be?

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