Booth completes the connection Poet smooths way from E. Baltimore to Terps program COLLEGE BASKETBALL


COLLEGE PARK -- He is more a symbol than a savior: the first Dunbar High School player to put on a University of Maryland basketball uniform since Ernie Graham left here without his degree in 1981 and Bob Wade left here with his coaching career in ruins four years ago.

At nearly 6 feet 7 and 210 pounds, freshman forward Keith Booth will have to show the maturity on the court this winter that he demonstrated off the court last spring, when he turned down offers at Duke and Kentucky and ignored the Maryland-bashers in East Baltimore.

"When I was making my decision, a lot of people were behind me, but there were some people who were saying, 'No Dunbar player should ever go to Maryland,' " Booth said yesterday after his first official practice. "I was able to be a man, to make a decision that was the best for me."

Having been in the spotlight so long at Dunbar, having played with and against more experienced players during summer leagues in Baltimore and Washington, the recently turned 19-year-old Booth seems unfazed by the attention he already has stirred and by the competition he will face when the season begins Nov. 26 against Georgetown.

If there is any insecurity, Booth hides it with a thick coat of confidence. While pronouncing himself ready to make the jump from one of the country's top high school programs to the Atlantic Coast Conference, Booth knows that he must make adjustments big and small.

"My strength right now is my defense and my rebounding and the quickness I can use against bigger players," said Booth, who saw enough Maryland games last season to know the 12-16 Terps were deficient in all those areas. "There's no secret that my weakness is my jump shot, but I've been working on that hard over the summer."

What Booth and fellow freshman Joe Smith, a 6-9 center from Norfolk, Va., give the Terps is the frontcourt athleticism that -- with the exception of sophomore small forward Exree Hipp -- has been missing at Maryland for a couple of years. That is why all three are expected to start this season for what will be the ACC's youngest team.

While Smith and Hipp will make the kind of spectacular plays that bring fans out of their seats, Booth is more subtle. His instincts led Maryland coach Gary Williams to say about Booth recently: "He plays wise beyond his years."

To which Williams yesterday added, "I like him; he's really solid. The natural adjustment every high school superstar has to make is to learn how to stay within himself. If the offense breaks down, he's used to going over and getting the ball. He doesn't have to do that here."

Booth doesn't have to put up the kind of stats he did his last two seasons at Dunbar, when he averaged 19.5 points, 11.8 rebounds and four assists for the Poets' undefeated mythical national championship team as a junior, then followed up with a 21-point, 10-rebound, four-assist-a-game senior year.

Nonetheless, the great expectations are there for the player everyone at home calls Turk. Perhaps they are even higher back in his old neighborhood, where every performance will be monitored closely. Why didn't he take that shot with the game on the line? Why isn't he getting the ball more? Why isn't he scoring 20 a game?

"That's the outsiders looking in," said Booth, who heard some of the same whispers last year at Dunbar. "I'm not trying to live up to other people's expectations. I just want to help our team win."

That is something Maryland hasn't done in a while. The Terps last went to a postseason tournament in 1990, advancing to the second round of the NIT, before they were banned for two years by the NCAA for infractions committed under Wade. They are coming off two straight losing seasons, mostly the fallout from probation.

But interestingly, one of the attractions for Booth to Maryland was the similarity between the program's plight and the situation he entered as a freshman at Dunbar. With sophomores Michael Lloyd and Donta Bright, he was part of the nucleus of what became a national power.

Booth is hoping the same thing can happen here.

"When I first got to Dunbar, we were a young team on the rise," said Booth, who wound up starting three years there. "The year before I got there, the team was losing to schools it hadn't ever lost to. That's the feeling I have at Maryland. . . . How good we can be is unlimited."

NOTES: Williams worked the Terps out nearly three hours yesterday morning, beginning at 7 a.m., then again for a couple of hours in the afternoon. . . . Sophomore point G Duane Simpkins, who is expected to start this season, sat out with a sprained ankle but should be back when the team resumes practice tomorrow.

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