If UM is on, losing's not an option

April 01, 2002|By MIKE PRESTON

ATLANTA - As No. 1-seeded Maryland attempts to stake a claim to college basketball history tonight, its biggest opponent will not be fifth-seeded Indiana, but the Terps themselves.

That's the bottom line heading into the NCAA championship game at the Georgia Dome. If Maryland (31-4) plays a complete game, the Terps can't lose, because they clearly have more talent than Indiana (25-11) and any other team in the country.

Maryland is a physical brute. The Terps have more bulk and depth in the frontcourt. The Terps have more experience in the starting lineup with three seniors. Maryland coach Gary Williams is hot, having beaten top-notch coaches Tubby Smith, Jim Calhoun and Roy Williams in the past three games.

Then there is the Juan Dixon factor. The Baltimore native and senior Maryland guard has been the hottest player in the tournament.

If the Terps lose, they can only blame themselves.

No excuses.

There are no guarantees in sports, especially when college-age players are involved, but when the Terps bring their A game, they are unbeatable. Even when the Terps play B-brand ball, they are tough to beat, which is more of a commentary on the diminished level of college basketball talent than on Maryland's greatness.

"Our goal was just to try to make it here," Dixon said. "We weren't going to worry about any other teams, Duke, Oklahoma, the teams we lost to in the past. We just tried to get to this point. We never wanted to worry about anyone else, just our game. When we're on our game, we're a great basketball team."

Indiana can beat Maryland. Forget the Cinderella stuff. The program was riddled with turmoil when Bob Knight left two seasons ago and was replaced by little-known assistant Mike Davis, whose team was 7-5 after December this season.

But equating the Hoosiers to Cinderella is like calling Bill Gates poor. Indiana has tradition. It has been to eight Final Fours. The Hoosiers have won five national championships and have had players like Walt Bellamy, the Van Arsdales (Tom and Dick), Quinn Buckner and Isiah Thomas and a coach nicknamed The General. (This has to be his worst nightmare with Davis in this position with the players he recruited.)

When the Hoosiers walk into a house, recruits listen. Indiana has several good players, such as forward Jared Jeffries and guard Tom Coverdale. They have a good bench and a forward coming off it named Jeff Newton, who has played well during the past month.

The Hoosiers can drop three-point bombs that will keep them in almost any game, and there are two other scary things about this team.

The Hoosiers play methodical, slowdown, pick-and-roll, back-screen basketball, an approach that has given Maryland problems in the past. Even more importantly, the Hoosiers are starting to believe in themselves.

They upset Duke and Oklahoma in the tournament. They are thinking upset in the championship game like N.C. State against Houston in 1983 and Villanova against Georgetown in 1985.

"Our guys on the team and our coaching staff and our trainers and managers, we knew we had a lot of talent and a lot of skill," said senior forward/center Jarrad Odle. "As the season progressed, our hearts got bigger and we played harder every game. We tried to block the media stuff out.

"It seems like we play a little better when we're the underdog every game. We're that way again [tonight]. It's obviously going to take a big game for us to beat them. But I think we can do it."

The odds are against an upset, because Dixon won't allow Maryland to lose. To win convincingly, the Terps need improved play from point guard Steve Blake. He has played poorly in all five tournament games.

Kansas guards had virtually no respect for him defensively in the first half Saturday night, frequently forcing him to stop his dribble near midcourt. Blake didn't get much penetration, and there were times when he was caught airborne with nowhere to pass.

The poor play might be getting to his head. He has no touch on his jump shots, and Blake, an 81.9 percent foul shooter, was 3-for-7 on free throws in the final 4:14 of Saturday night's game.

"Steve has high standards," Williams said. "He's tough on himself. Sometimes, I think he hurts himself a little by being so tough on himself."

Blake couldn't control the tempo of the game once the Terps had gone up by 20 points in the second half. He wasn't alone. There was no killer instinct.

The Terps don't want a repeat performance tonight. They need Baxter to play about 29 minutes, not the 14 he was limited to Saturday night because of foul trouble.

But Dixon bailed them out again. It's unbelievable that a team can advance to the championship game with its point guard playing poorly and its top post player on the bench for most of the game.

But Maryland needs to get away from that. It needs to play a complete game. Dixon is playing well, and so is forward Chris Wilcox, who mashed Jayhawks center Drew Gooden on Saturday night. Earlier this season, Maryland officials hung the jerseys of Baxter and Dixon from the rafters in Cole Field House, joining the likes of Len Elmore, John Lucas, Len Bias and Steve Francis.

But they can put a championship banner in the new Comcast Center.

"We're going to come out and give it our best shot," Baxter said. "Everybody is going to play hard. It's just going to be the best game we played so far."

If that happens, Maryland can't lose.

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