Terps' Smith gets start against 'Pack

Williams says he will stick with senior despite slump during past four games

College Basketball

March 03, 2004|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - Maybe the streak is over.

Maybe it still has some life.

And maybe all the talk about Maryland's string of 10 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances needs to take a back seat to a more pressing question: What's up with senior Jamar Smith?

Smith will get a chance to provide some answers tonight when Maryland travels to Raleigh to take on North Carolina State in its final Atlantic Coast Conference road game of the season. And Smith's play should go a long way in determining whether the Terrapins have a shot at an 11th consecutive trip to the Big Dance.

"Jamar is the catalyst for this team, basically," said Terps point guard John Gilchrist, who leads Maryland in scoring at 14.7 points a game. "When he plays well, our team, we do well. I think that's going to be one of the main focal points - to get him going."

Maryland coach Gary Williams echoed Gilchrist's sentiment yesterday, and in a somewhat surprising move, announced that Smith would be in the starting lineup tonight against the Wolfpack. It wasn't necessarily surprising that Williams decided to stick with Smith instead of 6-foot-10 freshman Hassan Fofana - who has played well in recent weeks - but it was a surprise that he announced it to the media. Williams' starting lineups are usually guarded as closely as state secrets.

"I don't think it matters [who starts]," Williams said. "To the players it matters, but not to me."

Still, the public endorsement might be the shot of confidence Smith needs to break out of a dreadful slump that has weighed heavily on the Terrapins (14-11, 5-9 ACC) lately. After scoring in double figures in 16 of the Terps' first 21 games, Smith has averaged 4.3 points in the past four contests. His slump appeared to reach a nadir Saturday against Wake Forest, when he failed to make a shot or grab a rebound, and was benched by Williams after playing just eight minutes in the 91-83 loss.

"He's frustrated," Maryland guard Chris McCray said of Smith. "Earlier in the season, he was having like 20-point games with 15 rebounds. He feels like he's a senior and he has to carry this team, and he hasn't been doing that lately. Hopefully, this is his breakout game right here so he can get over that slump. We need him."

Maryland also could use another big game from McCray, who came off the bench to have one of his best games of the season against Wake Forest, scoring 18 points, collecting four rebounds and handing out four assists. Williams, however, won't say whether McCray or D.J. Strawberry will start opposite Gilchrist in Maryland's backcourt tonight.

"Can't give everything away," Williams said with a grin. "If we can get D.J. and Chris to play like they did against Clemson, then whatever works, works."

It's hard to know what exactly will work against N.C. State, however. The Wolfpack (18-7, 10-4) has been one of the best teams in the country this year at home, going 14-1. The only blemish came last week against North Carolina, when N.C. State fell, 71-64.

"That helps that somebody cracked their streak," Williams said. "But the other side of it is that might give them motivation to play well."

It's not hard to pinpoint the Wolfpack's strengths. Versatility alone makes them dangerous. Julius Hodge (17.8 points per game), Marcus Melvin (13.9 ppg) and Ilian Evtimov (8.7 ppg) all play multiple positions, and all three can run the floor and shoot three-pointers.

The Wolfpack's willingness to take shots from behind the arc has also burned them this season. N.C. State is averaging 7.96 three-pointers a game this year (second in the ACC) but is shooting just 33 percent (eighth in the ACC).

Statistics aside, Gilchrist said the Terrapins understand the task in front of them: Beat N.C. State and Virginia on Sunday, and Maryland could extend its tournament streak.

"I definitely want to be a part of the streak, but it is what it is," Gilchrist said. "You can only control certain things."

Terps tonight

Matchup: Maryland (14-11, 5-9 ACC) vs. No. 16 N.C. State (18-7, 10-4)

Site: RBC Center, Raleigh, N.C.

Time: 9

TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)

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