Mardesich finds work paying off

Terps center leads from his backup role

March 07, 2001|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - Renee Mardesich saw the early signs that her son was a step ahead of the pack.

"At a very young age, Mike could sit and watch a movie and he could tell you what it was all about," she said. "He's been that way since he was 2 years old, very bright and ahead of himself. It's like he's always understood the whole picture."

Yes, Mike Mardesich gets it. He's the no-nonsense bookworm in the Maryland men's basketball locker room. But he is no nerd. He could have attended any Ivy League school, and got accepted by Harvard. But his attraction to the Atlantic Coast Conference, along with a keen interest in a business career, led him to Maryland.

Mardesich has studied three languages and has lived in four states and two countries. He will graduate this spring with two degrees in four majors: international business/marketing and finance/logistics. He could have walked away from school a year ago, but the urge to compete, to make one last run at a national championship with such a promising team, was too tempting to ignore.

And to the many Terps fans who never understood why the 7-foot, 250-pound backup center did not reach the lofty expectations he sparked with such an encouraging freshman season, understand that the poster boy for the student-athlete has figured out the big picture.

If you think Mardesich is one of those guys who will do anything to play professionally, whether in this country or overseas, think again. Mardesich doesn't need the game that badly, although the game could use more examples like him.

"I can never imagine myself not playing the game, but I'm not sacrificing my quality of life just to chase it," said Mardesich, 23. "I love the game. I want to be in it as long as I can. I also want to live my life."

To watch Mardesich come off the bench for the 11th-ranked Terps is to watch a pivot man with a limited game extract every ounce of effort possible out of his imposing frame.

Maryland (20-9) is rolling into this weekend's ACC tournament with enough momentum to win it for the first time during coach Gary Williams' 12 seasons here. The Terps have won five consecutive games by an average of 20 points, beating four top 25 teams along the way, in large part because their much-publicized depth has come to the fore.

And the man leading a stable of big men off the bench is Mardesich, who has steadily assembled maybe his most productive season. The numbers - he averages 3.8 points, 2.6 rebounds and 11 minutes - only scratch the surface of his value.

Watch him battle for a loose ball, pass it in traffic, plug the lane on defense, grab a tough rebound, or go hard to the basket. Watch the all-out effort rub off on the younger players. And he is always there. He owns the school record for consecutive games played at 130. He has never missed a game.

"You never hesitate to put Mike in a game, because you know he's going to work hard. I don't think I've ever told Mike to work harder in five years. I've said it to other guys," Williams said. "He has taken more than his share of heat around here, but he's never wavered."

"First of all, a nice guy on and off the court," said fellow fifth-year senior backup LaRon Cephas of Mardesich. "He's a great competitor who does whatever he can to help his team. The fans haven't always been behind Mike's back, but he's taken that very well. He takes the punches."

Don't think the catcalls heard in Cole Field House didn't make Mardesich feel small. After spending his redshirt year in the college of business as a true freshman - he enrolled in Maryland's honors college - Mardesich broke into the lineup in the fall of 1997. His grasp of the game was obvious, his skills admirable. After averaging 5.4 points and 4.3 rebounds, good for fourth on the team, he appeared headed for a leading role.

It never happened, as Mardesich failed to develop an offensive game effective enough to warrant the minutes of a starter. During his sophomore year, he started hearing abuse after he would miss a shot or lose a rebound.

"I didn't know how to handle that right away, that first year that I struggled," Mardesich said. "I got to the point where I couldn't wait for a fresh start, couldn't wait until the next season. I really started to second-guess myself after I made a mistake."

Mardesich just kept working. Now, he is one of the leaders of the deepest team Williams has had.

To watch Mardesich move about the locker room is to see a player who has earned ample respect from his more talented peers. It's no wonder Williams called on him, along with Cephas and Terence Morris, to prod the younger players to produce maximum effort. That came in handy during Maryland's struggles early in the year and during a 1-5 midseason slump.

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