Terps freshmen bring backup, inside and out


COLLEGE PARK -- Rodney Elliott and Sarunas Jasikevicious were born a day apart in 1976 and grew up in different parts of world. But they have converged at the same time and place with similar aspirations: freshmen hoping to make an impact with the nationally ranked University of Maryland basketball team.

Elliott, a 6-foot-8, 200-pound forward from Baltimore, and Jasikevicious, a 6-4, 190-pound guard from Kaunas, Lithuania, are not expected to play as large a role as sophomores Joe Smith and Keith Booth did upon their arrival a year ago. The Terrapins need them only to fill in the gaps from last year's Sweet 16 team.

"Their job is to get some playing time," Maryland coach Gary Williams said last week, as the Terps counted down to the start of practice with Midnight Madness early yesterday morning. "And I think they will."

Elliott's time will be spent backing up Booth and junior Exree Hipp at forward, giving Maryland another consistent rebounder and defender up front. Jasikevicious (pronounced Yes-uh-kav-uh-chus) will play behind junior Johnny Rhodes at shooting guard, giving the team something it hasn't had in several years: a pure three-point threat.

While they are reserves, they are certainly not reserved, neither acting nor playing like freshmen in the team's informal scrimmages the past few weeks. Elliott played mostly against Booth and Hipp, but also spent some time guarding Smith, the team's All-America center. Jasikevicious was almost exclusively matched against Rhodes.

"Rodney has improved a lot from the days I was at Dunbar," Booth said of his former high school teammate whose friends have called him "Noodles" since he was 8 years old. "He's worked really hard on his game. When we were in high school, you had to get on Rodney a little, but now he's at the level where he does all the work on his own. I think Rodney's going to surprise a lot of people this year."

The day Elliott signed with Maryland last spring, former Dunbar coach Pete Pompey said that "he could be another Joe Smith." Pompey didn't mean that Elliott was going to dominate as a freshman, but that he might be better potentially than some other more highly recruited players.

Nearly overlooked by major-college coaches until his senior year, Elliott said that the lack of attention became a source of motivation. He eventually received offers from North Carolina State, Clemson, Providence and George Washington.

"I felt I deserved to be recruited earlier, but I really didn't get the exposure," said Elliott, who was cut from the Dunbar team as a freshman and made only the junior varsity as a sophomore. "When I was younger, people would say, 'Rodney is just some big, tall, goofy kid who's not going to be a basketball player.' "

Elliott's development began the year he was cut, when he worked out with a local recreation league coach, Rennard Smith. By the time he was done at Dunbar, many thought Elliott was on the same level as -- if not better than -- Norman Nolan, now a freshman at the University of Virginia.

"Rodney might be as good a leader as I've ever had coming into a program," said Williams, who has the same birthday (March 4) as Elliott.

Elliott, who averaged 12 points and 12 rebounds a game as a senior, said: "I feel like I can contribute in a lot of ways, but the thing I want to do right now is rebound."

The thing Jasikevicious wants to do is shoot from the outside, mostly because he's still adjusting to a more physical American game around the basket. Not to mention adjusting to the American culture and language, of which he knew little about when he went to Salanco High School in Quarryville, Pa., last year.

"It was hard at first because I only knew a few words of English," said Jasikevicious, who is now as fluent in the language as he is fluid in his shooting stroke. "I didn't know anybody. But that's what I wanted to do -- to come to U.S. and get an education."

Jasikevicious -- "Runi" to his teammates -- visited the campus last winter and could tell from watching the Terps play that they needed someone to take the pressure off Smith inside. Rhodes has always been a streak shooter. A cold spell for Jasikevicious is considered two or three misses in a row.

The biggest question is whether he can get his shot off against quicker, bigger players in the ACC. But Rhodes, at 6-4 one of the league's best defensive guards, gave his new teammate some early lessons in the team's pickup games by blocking a bunch of his shots.

"I'm getting better at it," said Jasikevicious, who was a member of the Lithuanian team that won the European Junior Championships in Israel this summer.

"When I first came here, I was shooting all the time, taking dumb shots. I was excited just being here. Every chance I was shooting. I got a little bit smarter."

Rhodes said: "He's more than just a shooter. He's a very versatile player. He can create. He can penetrate. But if you lay a foot off him, he'll fire it in your mouth."

NOTES: After a 15-minute scrimmage for Midnight Madness -- which included a monster dunk by Smith that led off ESPN's 2:30 a.m. "SportsCenter" yesterday, Maryland had two regular practices yesterday. . . . The Terps, who have been ranked as high as third by one preseason publication, have another Top 10 ranking to add to their list: No. 7 in the Sporting News Yearbook.

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