COLLEGE PARK — COLLEGE PARK -- After feasting a couple of times before Christmas, the Maryland basketball team will try to satisfy a different type of hunger tonight: the feeling that comes from beating a legitimate Division I team.
After their record-setting 66-point victory Friday night over Morgan State, which came 10 days after their 53-point romp over Towson State, the ninth-ranked Terrapins (8-2) play host to La Salle (5-1) in an 8 p.m. game at Cole Field House.
"It'll be tough," Maryland coach Gary Williams said yesterday before practice. "I think it'll be good to play a team like La Salle, with the kind of backcourt they have, in order to get ready for Georgia Tech and the rest of the ACC."
A combination of factors has prevented the Terps from playing their toughest possible nonconference schedule. It has resulted in Maryland's margin of victory being a sweat-free 28.8 points a game, sixth in the country. Among those factors:
* Upsets: Instead of facing then-nationally ranked Indiana and Michigan in the Maui Invitational, the Terps played unranked Utah and Arizona State. The way things have gone this season, the Utes and Sun Devils (who beat Maryland for the championship) might be better than the Hoosiers and Wolverines.
* Personnel changes: When Maryland scheduled Towson State, the Tigers were supposed to have senior Scooter Alexander in their backcourt. But Alexander decided to redshirt, leaving Towson State without a player who has bothered the Terps in the past. American, Maryland's opponent Friday, has also lost its best player,center Tim Fudd, with a knee injury.
* Bad nights: Maryland has made a lot of teams play poorly this season, but none more so than Colgate. The Red Raiders had been fairly competitive until they came to Cole Field House, where Exree Hipp neutralized senior guard Tucker Neale and Joe Smith locked up highly touted freshman center Adonal Foyle. Result: Maryland won by 50.
* Bad teams: Maryland has played four teams that hadn't won a game and will play a fifth later this week when American visits. Some of these teams should be competitive in their respective leagues, but Morgan State will likely not be among them. The Bears helped Maryland set or tie eight school and ACC records in Friday night's 138-72 debacle, including most points for both a game and a half (85 in the second half). The 66-point victory tied the largest margin in school history.
"I'm not apologizing for our schedule," Williams said yesterday. "UMass [an 85-74 winner over Maryland] plays a very tough December schedule, but they don't play another Top 10 team the rest of the year.
"At the time we played Utah and Arizona State, they were better than Indiana and Michigan because they beat them.
"You go into the year thinking that Towson State is going to be better, but their best player redshirts. You think that a team [Colgate] with the No. 3 scorer last year in the country and one of the five top-rated freshmen are going to be better than they were. La Salle has played a very tough road schedule and they're a mature team."
The Explorers have just the kind of team that can give Maryland problems. They have a pair of smart, quick senior guards in Kareem Townes and Paul Burke. They are athletic, if not particularly big, up front. They have won three road games and played then-13th-ranked Arizona close before losing by 16.
But one thing in Maryland's favor, aside from its home-court advantage and clear frontcourt edge with Smith, Hipp and Keith Booth, is that La Salle hasn't played in 15 days, since losing to the Wildcats in Tucson. In that time, Townes has missed two days of practice with the flu, and Burke and sophomore forward Derrick Newton have missed time with sprained ankles.
"We haven't had a good practice since we came back from Arizona," Explorers coach Speedy Morris said last night. "You never know how a team is going to come back from a layoff.
"But Maryland's a terrific team. To beat a team like that, you're going to have to shoot 70 percent."
If they do, Maryland could get its, uh, just desserts.
NOTES: This week's ranking marks the first time the Terps have been in the Top 10 since falling from the preseason ranking of seventh to 11th after losing to Arizona State. It also marks the highest regular-season ranking Maryland has held in 11 seasons. . . . Tonight's game is technically sold out, but an athletic department spokesman said yesterday afternoon that 1,200 tickets remain from the allotment of student tickets that haven't been picked up.