The Maryland Terrapins should be thrilled that they're playing Connecticut in the West Regional semifinals tomorrow night.
No, not because the Huskies will be an easy mark -- they won't be, not in the least.
But the fact that the Huskies are in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament, within two wins of a Final Four berth, is an encouraging development for the Terps. Don't get it? Here's the deal:
A year ago, the Huskies were in precisely the same position the Terps are in now, fielding a Top 10 team led by a first-team All-America big man. Then that big man, Donyell Marshall, left school early for the NBA, leaving a huge hole in the Huskies' lineup. A decline was forecast, and appeared inevitable. Yet it hasn't occurred.
This season's Donyell-less Huskies have equaled the accomplishments of last season's Donyell-led Huskies, winning the Big East regular-season championship and advancing to the Sweet 16 (where last season's team lost to Florida). They won 15 straight games to start the season and in February achieved the school's first No. 1 national ranking.
It is entirely possible that they'll beat Maryland and UCLA in the regional and become the first UConn team to make the Final Four.
To a Maryland team facing the real possibility of losing Franchise Sophomore Joe Smith to the NBA after this season, this year's Huskies stand as evidence that life doesn't have to end if Joe goes.
Oh, sure, the Terps would be serious national championship contenders next year if Smith were coming back -- they'd probably be the preseason No. 1 -- and considerably less than that without him, which is a shame for their program.
Yet they still could have a big season, as UConn did this year, and as Virginia did when it made the Final Four in the year after Ralph Sampson left for the pros.
See, an oft-forgotten fundamental of the college game is that the players are still just-left-home kids in the process of growing and developing. This isn't the pros, where players' talents are pretty much fixed and safely measured before the season. College players can undergo enormous changes from year to year. That is UConn's story.
The Huskies lost Marshall and didn't add a single useful freshman or transfer this year, so it figured they'd have to go down. But they have survived and thrived primarily because the other players have improved.
Donny Marshall, a senior forward, raised his scoring average from 12.4 points last season to 14.9 this season. Ray Allen, a sophomore guard/forward, went from 12.6 to 20.7. Kevin Ollie, a senior point guard, went from 6.4 to 10.1, and junior center Travis Knight went from 2.5 to 8.8.
That's almost 21 points of improvement from four starters, all but erasing the 25-point hole Marshall left.
Some observers think the Huskies actually are better off without Donyell Marshall this season, because they have more weapons and options, because they aren't as predictable.
Right now, it seems unthinkable that Maryland could replace Smith's 21 points and 10 rebounds per game. And just because UConn pulled it off doesn't mean the Terps will. But it is easy to envision Johnny Rhodes, Keith Booth and Exree Hipp producing much more next season. Rodney Elliott and Mario Lucas, too.
The truth is that Smith will continue to affect the team positively even if he is gone next season. His magic in the post has allowed the players to experience success for two years, beat North Carolina and Duke, win four of five NCAA tournament games, spend a year in the Top 10. The players around him are much better, and certainly more confident and poised, for having ridden his bandwagon for two years.
That experience should pay dividends next season, as it did for UConn this year.
Sure, there are differences in the two situations. The Huskies were helped by the emergence of Allen as a major star capable of carrying the team almost in Marshall-like fashion. The Terps won't have such a player next year; several talented ones, yes, but no future lottery picks. And the Huskies returned a strong frontcourt this year, whereas the Terps' returnees are guards and forwards. Who is going to do the rebounding?
Yet there are similarities, too. The Huskies start two 22-year-olds (Marshall and Ollie) and one 23-year-old (Doron Sheffer), making them about as wise and game-hardened as a college team can get. Next year's Terps will start a 23-year-old (Rhodes), a 22-year-old (Hipp) and two 21-year-olds (Duane Simpkins, Booth). And if the Terps were to make the NCAA tournament next year, it would be their third trip -- the same total as this year's UConn upperclassmen.
This season's Huskies are balanced, experienced, pedigreed and utterly sure of themselves as a high-pressure, running team. Smith will be a major matchup headache for them tomorrow -- Knight isn't up to handling him -- but Maryland will have to play a four-star game to beat them. And that is good news for the Terps, oddly enough.