For openers, Terps aim high

Despite recent slump, defending champions carry big expectations

Blake: `We have a lot of talent'

Led by guard Blizzard, UNC-Wilmington poses first obstacle tonight

Ncaa Tournament

March 21, 2003|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - It's high time for the Maryland Terrapins to regain their stride, since they have run out of room to stumble.

The 17th-ranked Terps, seeded No. 6 in the South Regional, have plenty of players who've enjoyed tremendous success in the NCAA tournament. Five seniors, led by point guard Steve Blake and shooting guard Drew Nicholas, have lived through back-to-back Final Four appearances and the thrill of winning the school's first national championship.

When Maryland formally begins defense of its NCAA title tonight with a first-round encounter against No. 11 seed UNC-Wilmington at the Gaylord Entertainment Center, the Terps aim to draw heavily on that experience.

They also know that anything resembling the subpar effort in their past two games simply will not do. Not only does Maryland (19-9) have no choice in a single-elimination format but to reverse its two-game losing streak, the Terps also are well aware that the Seahawks (24-6), led by senior guard Brett Blizzard, do not fear them.

The Terps, who were outrebounded by a combined 33 in their recent losses to Virginia and North Carolina - which probably cost them a chance at a No. 3 or 4 seed - think they are good enough to beat anybody. They must start by defeating the Seahawks, who have matched a school record with nine straight victories coming into their fourth NCAA tournament.

"I have high expectations for this team. We're not going in [to the tournament] settling for a first-round loss or a second-round loss," said Blake, Maryland's four-year starter. "I don't see one team that is dominant, that nobody can beat. I've seen flashes where we're good enough to win the whole thing. We definitely have a lot of talent. We have the players."

Even though the tournament selection committee was relatively kind to the Terps by sending them to the South, can this team find the momentum it will need to push deep into the NCAAs? Will the Terps rediscover the post game that has deserted them too often of late? Will senior center Ryan Randle emerge from a late-season funk, during which he has scored just 20 points in his past three games?

Nicholas thinks the better half of an inconsistent Maryland squad will show itself with the pressure of the postseason shining upon it. He thinks the Terps, who have been good enough to put together a pair of five-game winning streaks, but weak enough to post three two-game losing streaks and go 2-5 against teams currently ranked, can make a serious run at another title.

"Why not? We've been on the biggest stage already," said Nicholas, Maryland's leading scorer, who ripped his teammates after a lackadaisical showing against Carolina in the ACC tournament quarterfinals. "We've experienced it; we know what it's like. This is about business. Just win and move on. That's what March is about."

The Terps are banking on their defense, depth, backcourt experience and the return of a power game to defeat the dangerous Seahawks, who are Colonial Athletic Association champions led by the league's two-time Player of the Year in Blizzard. He led the CAA in scoring with 21.3 points a game.

Blizzard, who will shoot the ball from anywhere on the floor with confidence, also feeds off the inside-outside game of senior center/forward Craig Callahan (16.6 ppg, 7.1 rpg), who bangs down low but also averages more than three three-point attempts a game.

UNC-Wilmington, which is 1-21 all-time against ranked teams but upset USC in the first round of last year's NCAA tournament before giving eventual finalist Indiana a good run in the second round, also will be a little easier to guard tonight. Junior guard Tim Burnette, the team's third-leading scorer (11.0 ppg), has been suspended by coach Brad Brownell for an unspecified violation of team rules.

That should make it easier for Maryland to break down a Seahawks offense that committed the seventh-fewest turnovers in the nation (11.5). It should make it easier for the Terps to avoid becoming the first defending national champion to lose in the first round since UCLA stumbled against Princeton in 1996.

Maryland lost in the first round in 1996 and 1997, and the current Terps know plenty about first-round scares. Two years ago, Maryland survived an 83-80 decision against George Mason in Boise, Idaho, in what was the beginning of their first march to a Final Four.

"This time of the year, everybody comes to play hard, all 64 teams. It's really a fight this time of the year," Nicholas said. "We're the defending national champions, and that adds a little fuel to the fire. I'm sure UNC-Wilmington would like to knock us off. We're here to play 100 percent basketball and make sure that doesn't happen."

Williams thinks the Terps, who finished tied for second in the ACC and have ranked among the nation's leaders in assists, three-point shooting and field-goal percentage defense all season, are ready to reassert themselves at the most critical time.

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