If Maryland runs the table and wins this year's Atlantic Coast Conference tournament beginning at the Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum tomorrow night against Florida State, it seems likely to be compared with the school's top teams from other eras.
With the 1973-74 team of Tom McMillen, Len Elmore and John Lucas that lost in overtime in the ACC tournament final to North Carolina State, 103-100, in what might have been the greatest college basketball game. With the 1974-75 team, which lost McMillen and Elmore, added Brad Davis, won the ACC regular season and reached the final eight of the NCAA tournament.
With the 1979-80 team, which also won the ACC regular season behind Albert King, Buck Williams and Ernest Graham but lost a heartbreaker to Duke in the tournament final. And with the 1983-84 team, the first at Maryland to win the ACC tournament since 1958. Will these Terps be next?
They might, given their 23-6 regular-season record, their No. 10 ranking and a 12-4 ACC mark that helped create the only four-way tie for first in league history. But those who played for, played against, helped coach and even watched the Terps over the past 25 years are nearly unanimous in their opinion: This team isn't ready to be judged.
"This is a different era," said television analyst Billy Packer, who has been a part of ACC basketball since playing for Wake Forest in the early 1960s. "Those teams of the early '70s to early '80s had superior talent, but it was the experienced players those teams had that provided the nucleus for that great talent.
"Everyone talks about how great a player Joe [Smith] is. He is a great player, but he's only a sophomore. Those teams had great seniors. What Joe will be, players like McMillen and Elmore were already. If this team has Joe next year and two major recruits, maybe let's talk about it."
Neither Packer nor anyone else disputes the individual talent of this year's starting lineup: the above-the-rim skills of Exree Hipp, the lion's heart of Keith Booth, the all-court savvy of Johnny Rhodes, the blue-collar work ethic of Duane Simpkins. And then there's Smith, who might one day be considered the greatest Maryland player.
And, collectively, they might be better than any other Maryland team except for its predecessor from 21 years ago.
"This Maryland team gets down and dirty, and not in a negative sense," said Virginia coach Jeff Jones, who played against the 1979-80 team during his career as a Cavalier. "They just play really hard. It's a reflection of [coach Gary Williams'] personality."
"This team usually plays hard defensively for 40 minutes, and I hate to admit that's something we didn't always do," said Greg Manning, the junior shooting guard on the 1979-80 team and now an analyst on the team's radio broadcasts. "Player for player, it's probably equal."
The position-by-position breakdown doesn't favor this year's team compared with the 1973-74 team, which started a frontcourt of McMillen, Elmore and Owen Brown, a backcourt with Lucas and Mo Howard and had a bench that included Tom Roy, 6 feet 9.
It was a team that scored more than 100 points eight times, a school record. It was a team that set a single-season school rebounding record and out-rebounded its opponents by more than 15 a game. But it was a team, not unlike this one, that won the games it was supposed to and lost most of its big road games: by a point to defending national champion UCLA at Pauley Pavilion in the season opener, all three times to N.C. State and to UNC on the road.
"That was the year N.C. State finished something like 31-0 and beat UCLA [in the national semifinals]," said Maryland assistant Billy Hahn, a junior backup guard on that team and now, in Williams' absence, the interim coach this season.
Hahn also remembers something else about that season's Maryland team, which, after losing to the Wolfpack in the ACC tournament, declined an invitation to the National Invitation Tournament. It might be one of the other distinctions between the 1973-74 team, considered by many to be the best in school history, and this season's team.
"The one thing that stands out about that team compared to this one was its size," said Hahn. "We were big! You had McMillen at 6-11, Elmore at 6-9, and then you had Tom Roy and Owen Brown, who were both 6-9."
Said Elmore: "We had more size and more depth. But I believe the kids today are far better athletes than we were. As far as understanding the game and knowing how to play, I think we had the edge."
A more accurate comparison might be with the 1974-75 team. Without McMillen and Elmore, Lefty Driesell started three guards, Lucas, Howard and Davis, along with two forwards, Steve Sheppard and Roy. Many say this season's team really has three guards, a small forward in Booth and a power forward in Smith.
The presence of Smith, who reached 1,000 points and 500
rebounds faster than any player in Maryland history, is the biggest reason why this season's team has come so far. Whether he stays for another year or leaves for the NBA, the 6-10 sophomore All-American has left an indelible mark.
Former North Carolina star Walter Davis, who was a freshman during the 1973-74 season, said Smith is the most versatile big man who ever has played at Maryland.
"Offensively, he reminds me more of McMillen, the way he can step outside and shoot it or go inside," said Davis, who has been a television analyst on three Maryland games this season. "Defensively, he's like Elmore. Joe is sort of both those guys rolled into one."
The other season that this one has been compared with was 1979-80. That team had King, whose 2,058 points ranks second behind Len Bias all-time; Buck Williams, who in three seasons averaged close to 11 rebounds a game; Graham, whose 44 points against N.C. State the season before is still a school record; and Manning, a 1,561-point scorer who ranks first in free-throw shooting and second to Williams in field-goal percentage.
The knock on that team was that it didn't live up to its talent thought it finished 24-7 overall, and its 11-3 record in the ACC gave Driesell his second regular-season title.
"I never felt like we weren't prepared to play," said Manning.
Though the Terps haven't been accused of that under Williams, there have been games when it could be questioned. The second half of last month's loss at Georgia Tech. The first half of a loss at Wake Forest. The entire afternoon Sunday at Virginia.
This year's team also resembles the 1983-84 team, which was the last Maryland team to win the ACC tournament. That team featured senior center Ben Coleman, junior guard Adrian Branch and Bias, then a sophomore. It also had promising freshman point guard Keith Gatlin.
"I think this year's team is a lot like the year we won it," Gatlin, now playing professionally in Germany. "But I don't know if anybody was as good as Lenny, even Joe."
It's hard to compare Bias with Smith, because they played different positions with much different styles. As a sophomore, Bias relied more on his jumping ability than on what, by the next season, became one of the country's most impressive jump shots. Smith is much more polished at this age, relying on intelligence as much as ability.
It was during the 1984 ACC tournament in Greensboro that Bias emerged as a star and was named MVP. Smith is already a star, likely to become the first Maryland player since Bias to be named ACC Player of the Year.
In fact, going into the 1983-84 season, Coleman and Branch were considered the best players.
"The one difference was that there were a lot of expectations on Maryland coming into this year, and I'm not sure there were the same kind of things expected of that team," said Radford coach Ron Bradley, an assistant under Driesell and Bob Wade at Maryland.
The biggest difference, again, was strength. With Coleman, Bias and Herman Veal, that Maryland team had a number of bangers inside. This season's team has lacked that kind of inside player, though it is a much better rebounding team. Smith has shown an ability rebound consistently. Booth, 6-5, 220 pounds, has proved capable of having big rebounding games, and Rhodes, at 6-5, is one of the best rebounding guards in the country.
The other difference was in height: Gatlin, 6-5, who would become the school's all-time assist leader despite playing shooting guard as a senior under Wade, started at point guard. Branch, 6-8, started at shooting guard. "The difference is that Hipp plays the 3 [small forward] and Branch plays the 2," said Bradley.
One characteristic of many Maryland teams, including this one, has been inconsistency. With the exception of the 1973-75 teams, the Maryland teams had a habit of underachieving, a fault laid directly at Driesell's stomping feet.
"A lot of people blamed Lefty," said Manning, "but I think the players should take responsibility for that."
This season's team went undefeated at home, including a victory over then-top-ranked North Carolina. It won at Duke and Clemson for the first time in seven years, but it didn't beat a nationally ranked opponent on the road. With a chance to win the ACC title outright Sunday in Charlottesville, a team playing its second straight game without an ailing head coach suffered its worst defeat in two years.
"I think this team still has something to prove," ACC television analyst Dan Bonner said recently.
This week in Greensboro might be a start.
Or it might be the place where the comparisons fade.