WICHITA, Kan. -- It will be a surprise if Maryland doesn't win today's NCAA matinee first-rounder out here in the prairie lands of Oz, even though Saint Louis has a better record, older players and a higher seed.
It will be a surprise because, even though the teams handicap pretty evenly, the Billikens lack even a semblance of an antidote for Sensational Freshman Joe Smith.
The Terps' 18-year-old franchise will be not only the best player ,, on the floor, but also the tallest player on the floor, and by a couple of inches, not just a noogie. He should have a huge game.
The Billikens have rung up a 23-5 record with quickness, sound fundamentals and three-pointers, but only one of the seven players in coach Charlie Spoonhour's rotation is taller than 6 feet 6.
Spoonhour surely will double-team the 6-10 Smith, but it'll be a mini-double compared with the monsters Smith has endured in the ACC wars; probably a 6-6, 6-3 double most of the time, and even though 6-3 Donnie Dobbs weighs 230 pounds, that's a long way down from Montross and Salvadori, Toto. It's just too much height to give away to a big man of Smith's caliber.
Yes, the Terps are young enough to crack. Yes, point guard Duane Simpkins needs to stay cool, run the offense and get Smith his shots instead of letting others settle for jumpers. And yes, the Terps might struggle to control the Billikens' zippy guards. But if Smith gets any help from Keith Booth and particularly Johnny Rhodes on offense, he should push the Terps to, say, a six-point win.
(And just when you thought a Terrapin was the least fearsome mascot imaginable, along comes a Billiken: an obscure cartoon character bearing a strong facial resemblance to The Cat in the ** Hat. As Dickie V might say, "Definitely all-Seuss, ba-beee!")
Banking a win call on a freshman's performance might sound risky, but Smith is no ordinary freshman. As if there were people out there he still hadn't convinced, he finished the season every bit as potently as he started. This was noteworthy because he slumped badly in the middle, missing 49 of 60 shots in one three-game stretch.
"I've seen a lot of freshmen go through that and not bounce back until the next season," Terps coach Gary Williams said. "But he's a special one. He made the adjustments and came back even stronger."
The slump started when teams began double-teaming him and he started forcing shots and moves. Once he identified the problem, he kicked the ball back outside, his teammates picked up the slack and the defenses had to spread out again, giving him room to maneuver.
He became so adept at recognizing a double-team, and starting a pass sequence leading to an open shot, that ACC opponents went back to guarding him with one man. Predictably, Smith lit them up: 25 and 22 points against Virginia, and 16 points and 13 rebounds against Duke.
No matter how Saint Louis defends Smith today, he will have a size advantage as distinct as any he has had all season. Aware of the possibilities, no doubt, he seemed ready to tip off yesterday.
"I feel real good physically and mentally," he said. "It's been a long season, but I'm not tired at all. I know I have to play my best gamefor us to do well. And I'm ready for that."
Not too long ago, asking a freshman to carry you in the NCAAs was a no-no if you wanted to last past the first round. But Pervis Ellison broke the barrier as a freshman Final Four MVP in 1986, and then Michigan's Fab Five forever changed the perception of freshmen.
"Now they've played 9,000 games between high school games, camps, all-star games, summer leagues and their freshman year," Williams said. "Joe has probably played 100 games since the start of his senior year in high school. I think I played something like 30 [in the late '60s]. Joe is a veteran. You can't rattle him anymore with travel or important games."
Of course, Smith never has played in a game quite this important. Fairly or not, a player's NCAA performance can do much to definehim.
"If it doesn't happen, if he doesn't have a good game," Williams said, "it won't detract from what he's accomplished this year."
True. Smith already has done more than enough. He changed the arc of the Terps' season all by himself. Had he been less than a franchise player, as expected, the Terps would have been a .500 team sitting at home today filling out their brackets along with everyone else. As it is, Smith's rising star provided just enough boost to get the team the 16 wins it had to have.
It has been a fabulous ride for the kid, and Williams is right: He doesn't have to do a thing today. He has done enough. But you can almost hear the beseeching siren call resounding through Terpland this morning: C'mon, Joe. Just a little bit more, Joe, huh? Please.