Terps' mean streak goes long way

UM's physical style proves key to advancing in tough tournament

Ncaa Tournament

The Final Four

March 30, 2001|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - Maryland used to be built for a 400-meter relay.

Now it can handle itself in a boxing match, too.

Tough teams prosper in the tough times of March. Not to suggest that Maryland has become the "Bad Boys" reincarnate, a version of the Detroit Pistons of Dennis Rodman and Bill Laimbeer who revolutionized - some say brutalized - basketball, but one of the reasons the Terps are in their first Final Four is their willingness to mix it up.

Recent NCAA champions have been built for speed, but the ability to play rough and tumble is a necessity. Arkansas and Corliss Williamson were nastier than Duke and Grant Hill in the 1994 final. A year later, the Razorbacks' low-post force was manhandled by UCLA's George Zidek. Teams must relish the bump and grind of a half-court game as much as they do pressing 94 feet, and this Maryland team has displayed a mean streak its predecessors lacked.

"This time of year, it doesn't matter what kind of tempo you play, you're going to get banged around," said junior wing Danny Miller. "Things are going to be let go in the tournament, and it's going to be rough. You've got to be ready to bang on the boards. If you're not, you're going to get eaten alive.

"That's part of the thing we have on this team, that instinct. When you need a physical, rough game in the tournament, we can bring that. Maybe some of the teams we had before didn't have that. This year we've done a good job, that we're not going to be pushed around in games."

Actually, that happened in the second game of the season, when Illinois destroyed Maryland to the tune of a 55-37 rebound advantage in the Terps' second-round loss at the Maui Invitational. Coach Gary Williams publicly questioned his team's resolve, and fans were reminded of other big stages from which Maryland shrunk.

Williams had one of his best teams two years ago, when Steve Francis and Terence Morris were first-team, All-ACC selections on a Top 10 club. In the Sweet 16, St. John's Ron Artest bullied Morris early, the second-seeded Terps went scoreless over the last eight minutes of the first half and were brushed aside, 76-62.

There was a reprise last year in Minneapolis, on the same floor where the Terps will meet Duke in the Final Four tomorrow. UCLA made Maryland look like a bunch of little kids in the second round, as Earl Watson ran circles around Steve Blake and the Bruins romped to a record-setting 35-point blowout.

There were extenuating circumstances to both disappointments. Two years ago, Maryland was without Obinna Ekezie, as its senior center and most consistent low-post threat had his college career ended by a ruptured Achilles' tendon. Last year, Miller sprained an ankle in the final of the ACC tournament, and didn't play in an NCAA first-round win over Iona.

Two episodes at Cameron Indoor Stadium - one from last season and another from this one - point to a harder side of the Terps, who have become slower, but bigger and more solid. Both were provided by the New Jersey guys - Miller and Tahj Holden.

Maryland's monumental win at Duke last season was secure when Miller and Jason Williams went after a loose ball at midcourt. Both were extended on the floor when Miller took a forearm and drove the All-American's face into the floor.

Fast forward to Feb. 27 of this season, when Maryland signaled it was all the way back from its 1-5 skid with an 11-point win over the Blue Devils. There were some wild moments in that game, including the scramble in which the 250-pound Holden did what Ravens fans might call a "Goose" on Mike Dunleavy Jr.

Remember the AFC championship game, when instead of flopping on a prone Rich Gannon, Ravens tackle Tony Siragusa turned his body and drove a shoulder into the Oakland Raiders quarterback? Goose was hit with a $10,000 fine by the NFL. As they jostled for a loose ball, Holden used the same move on Dunleavy.

Lonny Baxter was a man possessed in Anaheim, where he was stirred on by Georgetown's jibe that the Terps were as soft as ever, and by a chance to beat Stanford's Jason Collins, who this weekend is expected to be honored as the nation's best low-post player.

As NCAA contenders go, this is an old team. Mike Mardesich is 23, and Drew Nicholas and Chris Wilcox are the only teen-agers in the 10-man rotation, but age or size aren't the biggest factors anyway. Maryland's toughness starts in the backcourt, where Juan Dixon and Blake have been testing each other since one of their first pickup games was interrupted by elbows and shoves.

"I try to set the tone by not taking [stuff] from anybody," Blake said. "That's the way it has to be if you want to win. I don't think it's a case of the rest of the team following me, that's just the way we are. We just go out and play that way."

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