Terps can't live by cream puffs alone - bring the entrees

January 05, 2007|By RICK MAESE

College Park -- A college basketball coach and a 5-year-old child have more in common than you might think.

(Oops ... a belated disclaimer is probably in order: This column has nothing to do with the on-court antics of any area college basketball coaches.)

No, I'm talking more about the interesting diet that the two seem to share. It's actually quite enviable. Sit down at the table, stuff your face with cupcakes and try to remember to wipe that smudge of frosting from your mouth before the real meal arrives.

For Maryland's men's basketball team, thankfully - mercifully, actually - the main course is finally on its way, and the conference season is almost here.

"We're ready to go," Terps coach Gary Williams said after last night's win.

If this endless appetizer course of pastry products seemed to last longer than usual, that's because it did - for Williams, for his players, and especially for anyone who watched more than a few minutes of the Terps vs. Middle School Team Masquerading as a Division I Program.

It took just a few seconds of last night's riveting Iona contest - a life-affirming 88-57 win for the Terps - to realize that everyone's ready for the real season to begin (if your calendar isn't in front of you, the Terps' ACC season really gets started next week, with home games against Miami and Clemson).

I tried to get excited for Iona, the only winless team in the country. I really did. It was a chance to see how the Terps have come together as a team through 16 games, how the freshman point guards have grown, whether the team can maintain its defensive intensity. I was taking careful notes and saw a big dunk by Ekene Ibekwe in the opening minute that tied the game at 2-2, which was then followed by a quick Iona turnover. And then my stupid pen ran out of ink.

It's just as well. The game was as memorable as those November and December classics that even your DVR refused to record. Like that 39-point win over Florida A&M. And that 41-point victory over Mount St. Mary's. And who could forget the 51-point drubbing of Missouri-Kansas City?

This complaining isn't aimed at Williams or the Terps. It's not entirely their fault for scheduling so many patsies. In fact, it's become almost essential.

Sure, Williams counts every game as another learning opportunity (though all we've learned in the past two wins is that the Terps seem to play to the level of their competition, which is not necessarily a good thing). But more importantly, he learned last year that his team's resume could use as much padding as possible by the time the NCAA Tournament Committee starts filling bracket vacancies. How can you blame Williams for scheduling games that will most likely produce results that make his team look much better than it actually is?

No, as I watched Iona players throw the ball away, trip over their own feet and make me wonder whether a Division I team could go an entire season without a single win, I held the NCAA responsible.

You see, last night's Iona game and last Sunday's thrilling Siena matchup should never have even happened. A season ago, the Terps played 13 games before they began their conference season in earnest. This year, Siena was game Game No. 15 and Iona was No. 16. So what gives?

Last spring, the NCAA decided to expand the basketball season, allowing teams to play a maximum of 31 games each year. A team like the Terps played just 29 a year ago, but this season, to make sure their end-of-the-year resume is judged on the same number of games as similar programs, they had to add the extra contests - games that have no business being played in the first place.

I guess we're to believe that the NCAA's commitment to academic excellence and concern for the student-athlete's time in the classroom explains the additions to the schedule. The extra games certainly weren't done with the basketball observer in mind. Two more cupcakes might be easy to swallow, but they're difficult to watch. It's not like Terps fans get another Big Ten team on the schedule or a Big East school.

No, they get Siena and Iona, which is kind of like an extra helping of cold lima beans.

There are two more W's on the schedule, but there aren't a lot of winners here.

Coaches get some nice statistics and more videotape to watch. Players get to realize that it's not so easy to get excited about two more pre-conference opponents. And fans come to realize that their season tickets don't have a lot of value until 16 games have already been played.

College hoops isn't exactly a case of the more the merrier. When a 5-year-old devours cupcake after cupcake, it's worth smiling about. When the rest of us have to, it makes your stomach churn.

So bring on conference play. I got a feeling the Terps are ready, and so are the rest of us.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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