COLLEGE PARK — COLLEGE PARK -- They have a better freshman class than last year, which was supposedly the best at Maryland in more than two decades. Their starting lineup is more gifted than it's been since 1989-90, the season Gary Williams returned to his alma mater.
So why are the 1993-94 Terrapins picked to finish no higher than seventh, and again possibly eighth, in the always-tough Atlantic Coast Conference? And why will Maryland probably struggle to win more games than it did last season, when the team finished 12-16 overall and 2-14 in the ACC, beating only N.C. State
* They're too young: Williams will start three sophomores and two freshmen. Of the sophomores, Exree Hipp started every game last season and Johnny Rhodes started all but one, but most of Duane Simpkins' experience came in the last two weeks.
* They're too small: Several frontcourt players will be pushed upa position. Thus, the starting front line of Hipp, power forward Keith Booth and center Joe Smith will go against mostly bigger, stronger and more experienced players.
* They're too thin: Physically and in terms of depth, the Terps are lacking. Two players who were expected to play as reserves, Nemanja Petrovic and John Walsh, have quit the team since preseason practice began. And Wayne Bristol is academically ineligible and not expected back until Dec. 23 at the earliest.
Despite all their deficiencies -- which include erratic perimeter shooting, especially from Rhodes -- it still might be a pretty entertaining winter at Cole Field House. In large part, it has to do with the arrival of Smith and Booth, bona fide blue-chippers and potential ACC stars.
It certainly has Williams excited.
"Our team this year is probably the most interesting I've ever coached," Williams said.
This is also the first Maryland team made up totally of players he recruited. Although they are unproven, most are quick enough to play the aggressive trapping defense that was noticeably lacking last season. They also seem to go to the boards better than any Maryland team in recent memory.
But they will have to play with their hearts and heads as well as their hands and feet. "I think we're going to have to play a thinking man's game," said Hipp. "We can't just rely on our talent. We have to intertwine our athleticism with our intelligence."
While Hipp and his teammates fantasize about going to the school's first postseason tournament in four years -- "Maybe we can sneak into the Sweet Sixteen," said Hipp, who dreams as well as he dunks -- the coach is simply hoping for a winning record after the first back-to-back losing seasons in his 15-year career.
"I've never set a certain number of wins as a goal for any of my teams," said Williams, 47. "I just want us to come out and play hard all the time.
"I've really liked the way they've worked so far. But when you're playing as young a team as we have, with at least 10 games against teams in the preseason Top 25, you have to be realistic."
The one certainty is that Maryland will play more as a team than it did last season, when seniors Evers Burns and Kevin McLinton were trying to showcase their talents for pro scouts while incorporating the much-publicized freshmen, especially fellow starters Hipp and Rhodes, into the offense.
The result was often disastrous, especially in end-of-game situations. Neither Burns nor McLinton had enough innate ability to carry their younger teammates along for the ride, as former Maryland star Walt Williams did for them the previous season.
"It was a difficult situation," said Hipp, who often disappeared during long stretches in games before playing more consistently late in the season. "They wanted to take it on their shoulders and I can understand that being seniors.
"This year is a lot different. We don't have anybody who's been here three years and can say, 'I've been through this situation 100 times.' We're going to have to do it as we go along."
Said Simpkins, "We've got to be together on the court and off the court. The closer we are, the better we're going to play."
Maryland's toughest games could be the four against North Carolinaand Duke.
So the barometer for the season will come quickly because the Terps have early road games against Georgetown, Oklahoma and Massachusetts. There is also a game at Baltimore Arena against Towson State, which upset St. John's in the preseason NIT last week.
But for all the talent Williams has brought in the past two years, the Terps appear to be too young, too small and too thin. And, quite possibly, still a year -- or two -- away.
MARYLAND AT A GLANCE
Coach: Gary Williams (61-57 in four years, 268-185 in 15 years overall)
Affiliation: Atlantic Coast Conference
1992-93 record: 12-16 (3-15 in the ACC counting tournament)
Radio: WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters lost: G Kevin McLinton, F Evers Burns, C Chris Kerwin
Outlook: The Terrapins have the benefit of two strong recruiting classes, but they are still feeling the aftershocks of the NCAA probation that saddled the program from the 1990-91 season through the 1991-92 season. With only nine scholarship players available to start the season, Maryland is going to have some problems in the ACC.
Date .. ..Opponent ... .... ... ...Time
Nov. 26 ..at Georgetown (USAir Arena) 2
Nov. 27 ..Cornell .. ... ... ... .... 8
Nov. 30 ..Rider .. ..... ... ... ... .8
hTC Dec. 2 .. UMBC ... ... .... .... ... .8
Dec. 4 .. Morgan State ... .... ..... 8
Dec. 7 .. at Oklahoma (Okla. City) .. 9:30
Dec. 23 ..Towson State (Baltimore Arena) 8
Dec. 28 ..Hofstra (Hall of Fame Classic) 8
Dec. 29 ..Championship or consol. .. .(8 or 6)
Jan. 4 .. at Georgia Tech ... ... ... 8
Jan. 8 .. North Carolina .. ... ... ..1:30
Jan. 11 ..Florida State .... ... .... 8
Jan. 15 ..at Wake Forest .... ..... ..4
Jan. 22 ..North Carolina State .... ..3:30
Jan. 26 ..Clemson ..... ...... ...... 8
Jan. 29 ..at Duke .... ..... ..... ...Noon
Feb. 2 .. at Virginia ..... ..... ....7
Feb. 5 .. Georgia Tech ... .... ... ..1:30
Feb. 10 ..at North Carolina ... .... .8
Feb. 12 ..at Florida State ... .... ..2
Feb. 16 ..Wake Forest .... ..... .....8
Feb. 19 ..Loyola .... ..... ..... ....8
Feb. 23 ..at North Carolina State ... 7:30
Feb. 26 ..at Clemson .... ..... ..... Noon
Mar. 2 .. Duke ..... ...... ...... ...8
Mar. 5 .. Virginia .... ..... ..... ..4
Mar. 10-13 ACC tournament, Charlotte, N.C.