Smith gone, but Terps in it all the way

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The druggist was the first person I heard mention the two

magic words: national championship.

The druggist is a huge Maryland fan. He wants the world to know it, too.

He has begun wearing a red cap bearing the word "Terrapins." Any day now he'll turn up in red trousers with little white turtles all over them.

"I think," the druggist said boldly the day after Maryland's 80-65 win over Florida State last weekend, "if Joe Smith stays in school we'll win the national championship next year."

Then he added, not quite as boldly: "Or maybe even this year."

First things first. About Joe Smith, Maryland's best basketball player since the late Len Bias.

Joe's as good as gone. Six more games and then the Atlantic Coast Conference and NCAA tournaments and he's out of there.

Next year 6-foot-10 Joe Smith will be in the NBA.

From what I hear, that's accepted fact within the basketball program, although Smith is not saying it publicly.

No one will blame him for opting for millions of dollars over room, board, tuition and books.

Next year, without Joe Smith, Maryland will not win the NCAA championship.

But this year? That's a different matter.

Maryland, obviously, is not one of the three or four favorites to win it all. That's why the Terps are ranked No. 7 in this week's Associated Press poll.

I thought Maryland, No. 8 a week ago, would go to No. 6 or No. 5 after beating then-No. 1 North Carolina last week.

But No. 7 is still impressive. The Terps' highest-ever final AP ranking was No. 4 in 1974.

Can this Maryland team win it all? Of course it can.

How can anyone say the Terps cannot do it when we have just seen them knock off Carolina? The Tar Heels, despite that loss, ** are No. 2 in the rankings announced yesterday.

Would I bet that Maryland will win the whole thing? Not a dime.

Maryland finished strong last year, when Smith and Keith Booth were freshmen, and made the NCAA's Sweet 16.

This year the Terps have a great chance to make the Final Eight. With any breaks, they could reach the Final Four for the first time in Maryland's history.

I tried to explain to the druggist that one slip in the NCAA tournament -- one game such as Maryland turned in two Saturdays ago at Georgia Tech -- and the Terps' season will be over.

That also applies to everybody else, of course.

Connecticut, which plays Georgetown tonight at the USAir Arena, has risen to No. 1 in the new AP rankings. But UConn can lose.

Anybody can lose a ballgame. The odds are that Maryland will lose to someone at some point of the tournament.

UConn has to be a little apprehensive about playing in the Washington area tonight. The last two No. 1 teams -- Massachusetts and North Carolina -- went there and lost to George Washington and Maryland, respectively.

There is no powerhouse team this year that figures to whip through the NCAAs. That's why Maryland has a chance -- maybe even a good chance.

Coach Gary Williams' team, which plays tomorrow at Wake Forest, is 19-4. It's a good team that gained a lot of confidence by beating Carolina.

The Terps have had a lot of another commodity that a school needs to win a national championship: luck. Williams' team has been injury-free for two years. His five starters have played together so much, even though two of them are sophomores, that the team has developed great cohesiveness. A nine-day trip to France last August also contributed to that.

Sure, Maryland, without a senior starter, can be called a young team. But it's not really a young team. This bunch, by the time the 64-team NCAA tourney begins, will be well-seasoned.

If the tournament were starting now, UConn would be the favorite. Its 77-70 win over Syracuse before 32,211 in the Carrier Dome Sunday earned the 19-1 Huskies their No. 1 ranking.

There is no question that UConn's Jim Calhoun is a championship coach. He was successful at Northeastern, where you can't win a national championship, and now he has 17 straight Big East wins at Connecticut, where you can win it all.

For the first time since the women's basketball poll started 19 years ago, one school -- Connecticut -- is No. 1 in both the men's and women's rankings. That's a feather in the cap of UConn athletic director Lew Perkins, who held that position at Maryland from 1987 to 1990.

Lew Perkins was not the most beloved person ever to sit in the AD's chair at College Park, but you have to say one thing for him -- he knows how to get things done.

It was Perkins who worked with Annapolis to get the improvements going at Byrd Stadium. It was Perkins, and not Andy Geiger, who hired Gary Williams, the man who has led the Terps to the top 10.

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