COLLEGE PARK — COLLEGE PARK -- Enough already.
Enough with doubting whether the Maryland Terrapins are worthy of their tall preseason hype.
Sure, they have some holes, some limitations, some problems. But what team doesn't?
And sure, they have lost to the three highest-ranked teams they have played, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Ar- izona State. But since when should losing close games to No. 1 at home and to No. 4 on the road be enough to invalidate a team's stake as one of the nation's best teams? Isn't that a little harsh?
Anyone who doubts the Terps' potency didn't see last weekend's North Carolina game, which was played at a level as high as any college game you will see this year. The Tar Heels were playing way above the rim that night, and the Terps hung right with them. ("Great players, great plays," coach Gary Williams said.)
And anyone who doubts the Terps certainly didn't see them put the hammer to Wake Forest yesterday at Cole Field House. On a day when they were operating not quite at peak efficiency, they were still a couple of lengths better than the Demon Deacons, the nation's 12th-ranked team.
What most recommends the Terps, of course, is Franchise Sophomore Joe Smith, who, with his inside game, shooting range and fundamentals, more and more resembles a high lottery pick in the next NBA draft. His matchup with Wake's Tim Duncan yesterday was pretty close to a mismatch. Smith missed only six of 20 field-goal and free-throw attempts on the way to a 23-point, nine-rebound performance.
But it takes more than one franchise player to make the franchise. At this point, the Terps have two. Johnny Rhodes has taken a significant step up from a year ago. His improved shooting and guileful, multi-faceted game have made him almost as much of a force as Smith, not to mention a brutal matchup problem for opponents.
It has been since the '70s, since the days of Len Elmore and Tom McMillen and John Lucas, that the Terps have had two players competing at a level as high as where Smith and Rhodes are now. They alone make Maryland one of the nation's most formidable teams.
They aren't alone, either. Exree Hipp no longer disappears for entire halves; he is much more consistent and heady than a year ago. Keith Booth is struggling to get his shot off inside, and he makes too many mistakes, but he still sets the tone for the team with his chin-out, straight-to-the-hole game. As any coach would tell you, you can't win without such steel-hard players.
The weak link lately has been point guard Duane Simpkins, who has suffered a palpable crisis of confidence since his debacle in the loss to UMass. Although he continued to run the Terps' half-court offense solidly enough, he was increasingly hesitant with his own shot, basically no factor as his game dwindled away to nothing.
But then yesterday, Simpkins suddenly took off in the second half, scoring 17 points on a series of long jumpers and transition ++ drives. If that represents the beginning of a return to form by Simpkins, who was a viable point guard for most of last season, the Terps are going to wear out some teams in the next few months. Their fortunes tend to rise and fall with those of Simpkins.
It was true, in the beginning, that the team was given a high ranking back in the preseason on the relatively flimsy basis of one superb half against UMass in the NCAA tournament. But it is clear now, with the team sitting at 13-3 -- the best start for a Maryland team in 11 seasons -- that the high rankings are merited.
"I think they're the best team in the ACC right now," Wake coach Dave Odom said yesterday.
Hyperbole? Sure. North Carolina is the best team in the ACC right now. But the Terps are plenty good.
Remember, their two biggest weaknesses were supposed to be outside shooting and depth. Well, they're shooting 52 percent from the field, as opposed to 46 percent a year ago. ("The shooting thing isn't even a factor anymore," Williams said. "We have plenty of guys who can hit it.") And the bench, while neither deep nor particularly stout, contributes significantly in some way in every game, either with Wayne Bristol's steadiness or Sarunas Jasikevicious' jump shot or Mario Lucas' offense. Yesterday, Lucas was superb on defense.
What they're missing most is a big banger to help Smith inside. And they're streaky, capable of utter silence for minutes at a time. When an opponent handles their pressure, they have to sweat.
But most other teams would gladly take on such shortcomings in exchange for the Terps' resources.
bTC "Is this a good team?" someone asked Williams in the locker room yesterday.
"I think we have a chance to be," he said, refusing to bite. "It's a little early to get too excited."
But . . .
". . . but we're improving, for sure," he said. "We're a lot better than we were in Hawaii [for tournament at start of the season]. Our defense is better. Our half-court offense is much, much better. It takes time for some of these team things to come together."
It would have taken some magical transformation for them to live up to every inch of their preseason hype, which included one publication ranking them third in the nation. And, of course, there's no such thing as a magical transformation. But as the Terps descend into the heat of their conference season, in which they will have good and bad days, it is clear that they are building something of real substance here. This is a good team. A team with more dimensions than most. A very good team.