Terps proceed with caution

East's top seed not looking past anyone, coach says

March 12, 2002|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - They have weathered the pressure to perform all season as a team ranked among the nation's elite, and the Maryland Terrapins don't expect to change their approach as they roll into their ninth consecutive NCAA tournament.

Not even the luxury of being a No. 1 seed for the first time in school history can relax coach Gary Williams, who will not find out until this evening whom Maryland will open against on Friday night at MCI Center as the king of the East Regional - for now.

"You don't take anything for granted," said Williams, who is fully aware that a top seed has never fallen to a No. 16 seed. The Terps will play the winner of tonight's Siena-Alcorn State play-in game.

"I remember when we were one of those teams that, if we could get up that night and beat a ranked team, what a big win it would be. It would make your season," he added. "We've dealt with that pressure all year. We know that whoever we play doesn't care if we're the No. 1 seed. They're going to try to beat us."

Once Maryland (26-4) presumably gets over its first hurdle, its path to its second straight Final Four appearance is potentially filled with intriguing twists.

First, there is the second-round contest looming against either St. John's or Wisconsin, two schools that have gotten under Maryland's skin in the recent past.

St. John's handed the Terps an embarrassing defeat in the round of 16 three years ago, in what was Steve Francis' last game with Maryland. Wisconsin beat the Terps in overtime to drop them to 1-3 early last season, then missed a chance to meet Maryland in the second round of the NCAAs last March by falling to Lefty Driesell's Georgia State squad.

Also potentially awaiting Maryland in the Sweet 16 round is No. 4 seed Kentucky, one of the up-and-down teams of the deep Southeastern Conference. The Wildcats were good enough to take Duke to the wire before losing three months ago, shaky enough to go 10-6 against the SEC and lose to Tennessee. They have dealt with several player suspensions, the constant pressure of winning in Lexington, and may have peaked early.

If the seedings hold true to form, Maryland will need to beat second-seeded Connecticut in the regional final to get to Atlanta for the season's final weekend.

The Terps beat the Huskies, 77-65, in early December to win the BB&T Classic at MCI Center. Connecticut has improved steadily since.

The Huskies are the champions of the Big East, a conference with questionable merit, but they are on a 9-1 roll in their past 10 games and feature an exceptionally athletic squad led by sophomore forward Caron Butler and shot-blocking center Emeka Okafor.

"We're looking forward to having an opportunity to go to the Final Four again in this oh-so-tough bracket," Maryland junior forward Tahj Holden said. "Cincinnati and Oklahoma probably have the toughest bracket out there in the West. It seems like we have the second-toughest. UConn is playing extremely well right now."

Also on the Huskies' side of the bracket are sixth-seeded Texas Tech - which has been resurrected under former Indiana coach Bob Knight - and third-seeded Georgia. The Bulldogs lack size and depth, but they have shot the ball well enough from the perimeter to take down Florida and Kentucky on the road.

Local fans also will get a look at seventh-seeded North Carolina State, which became the first team to beat Maryland in seven weeks by upsetting the Terps, 86-82, in the ACC tournament semifinals. With a victory on Friday, the Wolfpack figure to face UConn in the second round.

Holden said the sting of losing last weekend should serve as useful cold water to Maryland, which allowed N.C. State to shoot 59.2 percent, the highest percentage surrendered by the Terps this season.

"We're a pretty good scoring team, but we've got to concentrate on stopping the other team this weekend," Holden said. "We didn't play good defense in either game [at the ACC tournament]. We are going to focus on our defense this week."

NOTES: Maryland is the only school in the country that has done all of the following: qualified for the past nine NCAA tournaments, advanced five times during that span to the Sweet 16 and won at least 25 games during each of the past four seasons. ... The Terps have gone 14 NCAA tournaments since last playing in the East Regional. ... Senior guard Juan Dixon needs 36 points to become Maryland's career scoring leader. He trails only Len Bias (2,149 points), and could break that record this weekend. ... Point guard Steve Blake, who had 31 points, 17 assists, 10 rebounds, 11 steals and shot 73 percent over two games at the ACC tournament, has 711 career assists and is on pace to become only the fourth player in NCAA history to reach 1,000. Blake has averaged 7.0 assists in his career, and his 8.2-assist average in 2002 is second in the nation behind T.J. Ford of Texas.

Next for Terps

Opponent: Alcorn State (21-9) or Siena (16-18) in NCAA tournament East Regional first round

Site: MCI Center, Washington

When: Friday, 10:10 p.m. (approximately)

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


Thursday's TV games for Baltimore and Washington:


Kentucky-Valparaiso...12:25...13, 9

Wake For.-Pepperdine...2:42...13, 9


Notre Dame-Charlotte...7:40...9

Duke-Winthrop...10:05...13, 9

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