Terps again playing role of favorites

High expectations for NCAA tourney match early hype

`As ready as we can be'

Mason star Evans: `We won't be in awe'

Ncaa Tournament

March 15, 2001|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

BOISE, Idaho - They began the season by confronting the weight of high expectations, and they have pronounced themselves ready to resume the heavy lifting once again.

This time, there is no time for a misstep by the Maryland Terrapins.

The new season is upon them, and in the unforgiving world of the NCAA tournament, one loss spells the end of the line.

Before the 11th-ranked Terps went through a light 50-minute workout yesterday at the BSU Pavilion, where third-seeded Maryland opens its postseason today in the West Regional against 14th-seeded George Mason, coach Gary Williams said the fear of losing offers quite an incentive this time of the year.

"There's a big difference between an NCAA tournament game and a game in November and December. You can afford to blow a game then," Williams said. "You can't do that now. If you blow one, you're back on that airplane for five hours.

"I really think we're going into this tournament the way you want to go into a tournament. It's not false bravado. We've played well. We've beaten good teams. We're as ready as we can be."

It certainly appears that way. Despite having 10 losses, Maryland (21-10) has played itself into a strong pre-tournament position. The Terps have won six of their past seven games, including five victories over Top 25 teams by an average of 20 points.

Maryland has come a long way since those dysfunctional, underachieving days of February. Then, one of the nation's most highly touted teams had lost five of six games, had fallen to 15-9 by losing to Atlantic Coast Conference bottom feeder Florida State, and looked unworthy of its eighth straight bid to the NCAAs.

"To go from maybe not being in the tournament to being a No. 3 seed is pretty unbelievable," sophomore reserve forward Tahj Holden said. "Not many teams could do that."

Said senior forward Terence Morris: "This is the hottest team I've been on going into the tournament. We were a pretty good team at the beginning of the season, but we had some guys who were really working hard and some guys who weren't really giving their full effort.

"Things have really changed a lot for us," said Morris, who played on last year's team that peaked too early and fell by 35 points in the tournament's second round to UCLA. "We all believe in each other and have a lot of confidence. That's surely the big key for us right now."

Here is the mountain George Mason must climb to pull off a shocking upset:

The Terps are rested, healthy and sporting the deepest roster in Williams' 23-year coaching career.

Their defense, a sore spot with Williams during much of the early- and mid-season struggles, is strangling opponents again. Six of the Terps' past seven opponents have failed to shoot 37 percent.

And Maryland will counter George Mason senior George Evans, a three-time Colonial Athletic Association Player of the Year, with a stable up front in center Lonny Baxter and backups like Holden, Mike Mardesich and Chris Wilcox.

Not that Evans, a 30-year-old Gulf War veteran, sounded particularly disturbed about it.

"We're 30 minutes from each other, we've played against their players in summer league, we played them last year [a 69-66 Maryland victory]. We knew those guys," Evans said. "We won't be in awe at all. We're not just happy being here. We want to compete at a high level."

Good luck stopping the Maryland offense, which is making the extra pass, grinding away in the half-court game and using fresh legs to its advantage in the fast-break game.

The only tournament team averaging more points than the Terps (85.7) is top-ranked Duke. Maryland is riding the slender, 6-foot-3 frame of junior guard Juan Dixon (22.5 ppg in the past six games) and feeding off of point guard Steve Blake, who is the first Maryland player to lead the ACC in assists since John Lucas in 1974. The Terps average 20 assists, tops in the 64-team tournament field.

Now, the Terps cannot afford to stumble. The team that was ranked No. 5 in preseason and widely picked to reach the Final Four for the first time in school history must produce. Now, the Terps are being talked about nationally as a hot team destined for Minneapolis. Now, there is no time to lose.

"I've dreamed about the Final Four for about 30 years, but I'm always very proud to make the NCAA tournament," said Williams, who has not taken Maryland or any other team beyond the Sweet 16, where the Terps have been under him on four occasions.

"To finish third in the ACC when, three weeks ago, there were four good teams tied for third, that's a success. Getting a No. 3 seed, that's a success. How well we do in the NCAAs is another measure of success. I'm very proud of our program."

Junior forward Byron Mouton, who transferred from Tulane, sat out last season, then won a starting job in December, now finds himself in the Snake River Plains, smelling the goal that brought him to College Park.

"Seeding is just seeding. You've got to play hard every single night. I'm planning on being part of the best team in April," Mouton said. "It's all about what we want to do, and that's compete for a national championship. We've got to go through George Mason to do that."

Terps today

Opponent: George Mason in NCAA tournament West Regional first round

Seeds, records: No. 3 Maryland 21-10; No. 14 George Mason 18-11.

Time: 3:02 p.m. approx.

Site: BSU Pavilion, Boise, Idaho

TV/Radio: Chs. 13, 9/WBAL (1090 AM)

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