Terps don't blink in second spotlight

Last year's Final Four helps Maryland to stay focused on No. 1 mission

Kansas not overwhelmed either

Final Four

March 30, 2002|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- Gary Williams has craved this chance for a year. So have Juan Dixon, Lonny Baxter, Steve Blake and the rest of the Maryland Terrapins.

A year after making their maiden voyage to the Final Four, a year after blowing a 22-point lead and losing to Duke, their Atlantic Coast Conference archrival and the eventual national champion, the Terps have returned to the college game's climactic weekend as a wiser, more seasoned, more dangerous team with its eyes locked in on the big prize.

All Maryland, the East Regional's No. 1 seed, must do in the featured bout of tonight's Final Four festivities at the Georgia Dome is negotiate an imposing hurdle by beating Kansas, the top seed from the Midwest.

All the Terps must do to advance to their first-ever national championship game on Monday night against Oklahoma or Indiana is beat a high-powered opponent that reminds Maryland so much of itself.

No wonder some observers are looking at tonight's clash as the true championship game.

Maryland (30-4) and Kansas (33-3) are the only No. 1 seeds to survive the first two weekends of the NCAA tournament. They spent several weeks late in the season sharing the two spots in the national rankings. Each of them is coached by a man named Williams who has never won a national championship, despite three previous combined Final Four trips.

Unless this game fails miserably to live up to the hype, be advised not to walk away from your television sets during any action, or else you might miss a bunch of points being scored.

The Jayhawks entered the NCAA tournament leading the nation in scoring with a 93.2-point average. The Terps were tied for fourth at 85.3 points per game. Kansas entered the NCAAs leading the nation with 21.5 assists per game, trailed closely by the Terps with 20.4. Both teams love to run the fast break. Both love to lean on great post players. Both have excellent guards. Both have proven toughness.

Kansas, led by junior All-America forward Drew Gooden, survived a first-round scare to Holy Cross and a severe ankle sprain to guard Kirk Hinrich -- maybe the key to the Jayhawks' fortunes tonight -- and a tight victory against Illinois in the regional semifinals. Maryland, led by senior All-America guard Dixon, stood tall on the free-throw line in white-knuckle battles with Kentucky and Connecticut to win last week's regional crown.

For Maryland, it's on to the next blueblood. In the history of NCAA basketball, only Kentucky and North Carolina have won more games than Kansas (1,771), which is making its third Final Four trip under 14-year coach Roy Williams and its first since 1993.

"We felt like we had to earn our way to get here, playing two teams that have won national championships [in 1998 and 1999] in the regionals. That allows us to say we didn't back in," said Maryland coach Gary Williams, who added that he did not begin to get over his Final Four loss to Duke until Maryland convened for practice in October.

The Terps are planning to take advantage of their role reversal. A year ago, they were the newcomers to the stage. This time, Maryland is the only team left from last year's Final Four.

"We're not overwhelmed by the term `Final Four.' It's been a goal around here for a long time," Gary Williams said. "After making it last year, it's a little easier to comprehend everything this year. Hopefully, it's an advantage for us."

The Terps are banking on their experience to pull them through and get them to Monday night's finale. They are banking on their three seniors -- Dixon, center Baxter and guard/forward Byron Mouton -- to show them the way. They are assuming point guard Blake will bounce back from a shaky regional performance and be back on his game. And they are hoping sophomore forward Chris Wilcox will get back to rebounding the way he is capable.

Although the fast break and guard play should play prominently in a contest that could produce 200 points, this could come down to how well the big men score and rebound, in the half-court or the full-court game.

That means Baxter and Wilcox need to win the battle with Gooden and Nick Collison, two Jayhawks forwards who have helped Kansas out-rebound NCAA tournament opponents by an average of nearly 14 per game.

"This is a great opportunity for me, so I have to just go out and play my game. Contain him and give him one shot and one shot only," said Wilcox, who will begin the game guarding the 6-10 Gooden.

"We're going to have to crunch the boards and play good, solid defense," said Baxter, the East Regional MVP who will mark the 6-9 Collison. "This is nothing I haven't had to step up against all year. I've played against good big men all year. I'm just going to play the way I've played all year."

Dixon, who leads the tournament field with 104 points, thinks the Terps are prepared for whatever style the game demands.

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