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Hyped-up expectations set up Terps for big fall

Calm down.

Forget that the Maryland men are ranked No. 7 in the country. Forget their upset of Massachusetts in last season's NCAA tournament. Forget they even made the Sweet 16.

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Hoops to hype, hype to hysteria.

Let these kids breathe.

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Calm down.

The Terps might indeed be the seventh-best team in college basketball. They might even be better than that. But the expectations are growing rather suffocating, don't you think?

Ten minutes of basketball, that's what the AP ranking is based on. Ten amazing minutes against Massachusetts. Ten spellbinding minutes that amounted to Maryland's finest hour.

Granted, it's impossible not to get excited when you're picked to finish seventh in your conference one year and seventh in the country the next.

But let's not forget that the Terps lost back-to-back games to ACC also-rans N.C. State and Clemson late last February -- trailing State at halftime, 39-14.

Let's not forget that they needed a victory over Virginia in their final regular-season game to finish .500 in the conference and secure an NCAA tournament bid.

In short, let's not get carried away.

Who will take over when Joe Smith gets double- and triple-teamed? Who will hit the big shot in the final minute? Who besides Mario Lucas will come off the bench?

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These are reasonable questions, not that anyone is asking.

Instead, the anticipation just builds. There's no baseball or hockey. The Redskins are 2-8. And Maryland football is so dismal, fans spent the entire season counting down to basketball.

The CFLs don't satisfy Baltimore's hunger for a winner. The Bullets don't satisfy Washington's. Suddenly, the Terps are drawing inordinate attention, and it's all just too much.

Such is the paradox at Maryland: The school waited years to see the light, only to get blinded by a supernova. This is a team to savor, a team to remember. But it's being set up to fail.

What will qualify as a successful season? A top-three finish in the ACC? Another appearance in the Sweet 16? Or nothing less than the Final Four?

No. 6 in Inside Sports, No. 7 in AP, No. 14 in Sport.

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All because of 10 minutes.

All because of one game.

"If we hadn't beaten Massachusetts, we might be in some Top 20s," Maryland coach Gary Williams said yesterday. "Like, 18th or 19th.

Eighteenth? That's Maryland's lowest preseason ranking, and it comes from Street & Smith's. One magazine ranked the Terps No. 3. One AP voter had them No. 1.

No. 1.

Over Arkansas.

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Over North Carolina.

Heck, Maryland might be only the third- or fourth-best team in the ACC -- Carolina is No. 2 in the AP poll, Duke No. 8, Virginia No. 14.

Carolina coach Dean Smith says the league is "the best I've seen, top to bottom." Georgia Tech is No. 23, Wake Forest No. 24. That's three teams in the top eight, six in the Top 25.

It means nothing.

Here's all you need to know about the AP preseason poll: Five of the top 10 teams last season failed to make it past the round of 32 in the NCAAs, including No. 1 North Carolina and No. 2 Kentucky.

Florida made the Final Four -- yet failed to receive a single Top 25 vote in the preseason. Think about that. Dozens of teams get votes. Coppin State did, both this year and last.

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The good news for the Terps is that their schedule could be humbling, even if the polls are not. Their possible opponents in next week's Maui Invitational include No. 9 Indiana and No. 16 Michigan -- and they face No. 3 Massachusetts at the Baltimore Arena on Dec. 10.

Williams would never admit it, but an early loss might be the best thing that could happen to his team. It would eliminate the high ranking, lower the pressure and return everyone -- players, fans, media -- to reality.

"Last year, we were scared," Williams said. "We played three sophomores and two freshmen. We had to depend on each other. This year, with the success of last year and the preseason hype, there's a tendency to believe things will work out. There's not the fear of failure that motivates you sometimes.

"It hasn't been a big thing. It hasn't been where we're not getting better as a team. I just keep reminding the players about last year in the ACC. We did not beat Duke. We did not beat Carolina. We were 8-8. Until we change that, we can't go higher."

Ten minutes changed everything.

Calm down.


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