UM hottest in country? It's not madness

March 04, 2001|By John Eisenberg

COLLEGE PARK - The Maryland Terrapins were so vastly superior to Virginia yesterday at Cole Field House that it made you check the records. Were the Cavaliers not a good opponent?

Well, it turned out they brought a 20-6 record, a five-game winning streak and a No. 7 national ranking to the game, with wins over North Carolina, Duke, Purdue and Tennessee to their credit.

That's good.

About as good as any team anywhere, as a matter of fact.

Yet the Terps turned the Cavaliers into a December cupcake, pounding them for 40 minutes on national television to raise a question that would have sounded ridiculous just a few weeks ago:

Is any team in the country playing better than Maryland as March Madness kicks into gear?

"All I know," the Terps' Juan Dixon said, "is that if I'm sitting at home somewhere out there [across the country] and I'm watching this game, I'm going, `Man, Maryland is really dangerous.' "

OK, so let's go ahead and answer the question: No, there isn't another team in the country currently flying higher than the Terps, who have won five straight games by a combined 97 points, with four of the wins over ranked opponents.

"Since I've been here," senior Mike Mardesich said, "I don't think we've had a team playing better going into the postseason."

Yes, you have to be careful about getting too carried with yesterday's blowout; the Cavaliers are 14-1 at home but 6-6 elsewhere, not nearly as tough when they don't have their home crowd supporting them. And their lax defense was simply an embarrassment yesterday.

"It's like they're a different team [on the road]," said Dixon, remembering Virginia's 99-78 win over Maryland last month. "I don't understand it."

Still. Come on. The Cavaliers are a top team destined for a high seeding in the NCAA tournament, and you had to see the Terps' blistering of them to appreciate just how complete it was.

Terence Morris dominated the middle with 14 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks. Dixon was his usual self, contributing 21 points in 25 minutes. Lonny Baxter took seven shots and hit six. Danny Miller and Drew Nicholas combined for 30 points and 16 assists off the bench.

Basically, everything worked - every piece of a puzzle that has confounded Terps coach Gary Williams for much of the season. His team shot 62.3 percent from the field, held the high-energy Cavaliers to 13 points below their scoring average for the season and, well, just dominated.

"Can the team play any better?" Dixon was asked.

"I'm not sure," he said.

"We have 10 guys playing well individually and together," Mardesich added, "and not many teams in the country can say that."

The Terps couldn't hide their delight in putting on such a show for the rest of the country after losing five of six games last month and almost falling out of the NCAA tournament picture.

"If I'm a player on another team and I'm watching this game, I'm saying, `Oh, my God,' " junior Byron Mouton said. "I'm saying, `Man, Maryland was so bad, I saw those guys play last month and they couldn't do anything, and now they're right there with anyone in the country.' "

Their snap-of-the-fingers turnaround has become instant lore, starting with the home loss to Florida State that represented the low point.

"You know what? Guys had stopped working hard. I know I did," Dixon said.

What changed? The team's seniors - Morris, Mardesich and LeRon Cephas - got up in a meeting after the Florida State loss and demanded a better effort.

"They put it to us straight," Mouton said. "It was like, `Hey, if we lose one more game, we aren't even going to make it to the NCAA tournament.' I don't know, it just seemed to strike a nerve or something."

The effort and attitude weren't all that changed, either. The defense improved dramatically, with each of the Terps' past four Atlantic Coast Conference opponents shooting under 36 percent. And the offense became more efficient, with the players exhibiting much-improved shot selection.

Asked how his team is different now, Williams said, "One, we're making it tough [for opponents] to score. Two, we're being more patient on offense."

And their altered mental state after pulling out of a slump for which they were severely criticized?

"We're pretty tough right now," Williams said. "We always talk about a lot of things privately. It's interesting what motivates a team."

That's all behind them now, as Virginia can attest, but the usual Waterloos lie immediately ahead - the ACC tournament, which Williams has never won, and the NCAA tournament, in which Williams' Terps have never advanced beyond the Sweet 16.

A team with nine losses, as this one has, would seem a long shot to achieve the breakthroughs. But if there was any lesson in yesterday's blowout, it was that the Terps' record is misleading.

This team with nine losses is more dangerous than a lot of teams with better records.

"We just have to stay humble," Dixon said. "We're peaking at the perfect time, no question about it. A lot of teams aren't playing as well as we are now."

He smiled.

"And you know what's funny?" he continued. "All we're doing is going out and having fun. We're not thinking too hard or feeling pressure or anything. We're just having fun. You can see it on our faces."

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