In big picture, keeping right frame of mind is key for UM Against ordinary teams, need for focus becomes exceptional

March 16, 2002|By Mike Preston

WASHINGTON - OK, so No. 1-seeded Maryland pounded No. 16 Siena in the opening round of the NCAA tournament last night at MCI Center.

It doesn't sound like a big deal, but it depends on what you're looking for at this point in the season. A year ago, Maryland was struggling in opening-round games against George Mason and Georgia State. A week ago, the Terps were sluggish in a win against Florida State and a semifinal loss to North Carolina State in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.

The Terps needed to come out with intensity last night, and resemble a team that was on a mission to win a national championship. In a blowout of Siena, the Terps seemed focused except for some brief defensive lapses.

Maryland did exactly what it should have done against a team that had the only losing record in the tournament. The Terps came, conquered and had control of the game by taking an 11-point lead in the first eight minutes of the game against the Loudonville, N.Y., school with an enrollment of 2,700.

That's what champions do against Cinderella. Kick butt and send her home. Maryland didn't take over the game as early as Duke did against Winthrop, but this was no Kansas against Holy Cross, either.

That should be Maryland's attitude this entire weekend. Come out early, take care of business, try to avoid injuries and get to Syracuse next week for the Sweet 16 and a more formidable opponent.

The indications of a rout came once guard Juan Dixon started rolling. Dixon had 12 points in the first five minutes as Maryland held an 18-15 lead with 15 minutes, 16 seconds left in the first half. The Terps had 12 points off turnovers in the first eight minutes, and had 10-0 and 8-0 runs in the first half, which was good enough for a 52-38 halftime lead.

Dixon ended the half with 20 points, finishing the game with 29. Guard Drew Nicholas and forward Chris Wilcox each had seven at the break. If Maryland fans were looking for a bigger halftime bulge, Terps head coach Gary Williams didn't seem to care, putting in reserves Calvin McCall and Andre Collins before halftime.

It's understandable why everyone wasn't comfortable. Even though no 16th seed has defeated a No. 1 seed since the tournament expanded in 1985, the Terps have experienced some postseason embarrassments under Williams.

There was the first-round loss to the College of Charleston in 1997; a Sweet 16 setback, 76-63, to St. John's in 1999, and a 105-70 blowout against UCLA in the second round of the 2000 tournament.

Those things make you nervous.

Williams, as usual, has tried to downplay the postseason. Maybe it's because of past postseason failures, or maybe because he wants a cushion if the Terps can't go as deep in the tournament as a year ago.

But he can't get off the hook that easy.

He raised the level of expectations a year ago when Maryland lost to Duke, 95-84, in a Final Four game. Anything less than another Final Four appearance has to be considered a major disappointment.

Maryland has more inside strength and depth with center Lonny Baxter, forwards Chris Wilcox, Tahj Holden and Ryan Randle than any other team in the country. It has an All-American and the conference Player of the Year in Dixon, even though it should have been Duke guard Jason Williams. It has senior leadership in Dixon, Baxter and small forward Byron Mouton, and a point guard named Steve Blake who is playing exceptionally well at a time when it matters the most.

The Terps (29-4) recently finished their best regular season ever and won their first regular-season title in 22 years. They gained their first No. 1 seed ever and are playing in the tournament-friendly East, where no other team has its overall talent.

Only a Final Four appearance would be the appropriate encore.

The Terps have been talking about a national championship since the last day of last season, and the first day of practice this season.

Wisconsin, tomorrow's opponent, definitely will be more difficult than Siena. The Badgers play in the Big Ten. They have won seven of their past eight games.

They have a winning record (19-12).

Wisconsin runs the high post, pick-and-roll offense that has some backdoor cuts, which gives Maryland trouble. The Badgers play much more of a team style than their opponent yesterday, St. John's, which is almost a one-man team with guard Marcus Hatten.

Wisconsin also can hit shots from the outside with guards Devin Harris, Kirk Penney and forward Charlie Wills, who looks a lot like former Ravens quarterback Elvis Grbac. But Maryland should have too much beef inside, and too much scoring from the backcourt.

But it's tournament time, and one loss can end a season and a lot of dreams. This is no time for fooling around, whether you're playing Siena, Wisconsin or Morgan State.

Maybe the Terps seem to have gotten the message.

Finally.

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