COLLEGE PARK -- Midnight Madness arrives at the stroke of midnight tonight at Cole Field House for the Maryland Terrapins. Reality checks in at 12:01 a.m.
"Joe Smith called me this morning," Maryland coach Gary Williams said yesterday. "He's in Albuquerque [N.M.] for his first exhibition game. I told Joe to take it easy on Karl Malone tonight."
This was on media day, two days before college basketball practice formally starts, the calm before the October storm. It was time to smile for cameras, answer reporters' questions, and sneak in a joke or two.
Williams can afford to joke; while he can't readily replace the man who went first in the NBA draft, he has some nifty options. And he already has struck the theme for a team that went to the Sweet 16 the past two seasons.
"I told the players in our first meeting a lot of people are saying we can't be as good because Joe's not here," Williams said. "I said, 'You have to deal with that.' They're intelligent people. I stressed to the team, nobody sets any limits on how good we are."
Amid various reports of bulking up (Mario Lucas and Rodney Elliott) and slimming down (freshman Obinna Ekezie), that was the essence of what the Terps talked about yesterday. Life after Joe Smith started with an emphasis on improved team depth, more pressure defense and a more versatile offense.
"To lose Joe Smith from the lineup is a key loss," said forward Keith Booth. "But that's behind us now. We have to focus on things that make us better. We might be one of the most experienced teams in the country. There's a question about how good Maryland can be without Joe. We're out to prove that
Maryland was not a one-man team."
Booth, a junior from Dunbar, is one of four returning starters -- all of whom averaged double figures in scoring last season. He and point guard Duane Simpkins were voted co-captains by the players.
Asked how this year's team figured to be different, Simpkins pointed to offense.
"You'll see a lot of games where if something is going well, if Johnny [Rhodes] is hot, we'll keep going to him until the well runs dry," Simpkins said. "Last year we'd go to Joe."
In another part of Cole, the ever-expanding Exree Hipp -- who said he's up to 6 feet 8 and 230 pounds from 6-7, 197 a year ago -- pointed to a different defensive agenda.
"On the defensive end, we don't have to worry about foul trouble," Hipp said. "We're like the Chicago Bulls. . . . center by committee. We have three centers, 15 fouls. We can play a lot more aggressively."
Weighing in, those three centers are Lucas (6-9, 240), Ekezie (6-9, 260) and Elliott (6-9, 225). The scales tell the story: Lucas gained 10 pounds, Ekezie dropped 25, and Elliott added 20. The early numbers appear to favor Lucas.
"Mario Lucas has been a lost man in this program," Hipp said. "You'll see now that he can play basketball."
Williams said the Terps will miss Smith's rebounding and defense the most. That's what he's looking for from his would-be centers.
"You don't replace Joe with another player," he said. "We'll do some things differently on offense, press more on defense, be more of a transition team. Mario has the best opportunity. You get a guy of Obinna's size, he's got to be a factor. Rodney's worked as hard as anyone."
If the Terps are a team in transition, it's not hard to see where
this all leads.
"Joe was the go-to guy last year," said point guard Terrell Stokes, who, with LaRon Profit, gives the Terps two talented freshmen on the perimeter. "Now everybody will get a chance to show their talents. It's a well-balanced team. We want to prove a point to people we can still win without Joe Smith."
NOTE: Jody Lumpkin, a 6-8, 225-pound senior from Columbia, S.C., was at Cole for one of his two official visits (the other was Rice), and said he expects to make a decision next week.
These area basketball teams will have "Midnight Madness" practices tonight, with free admission:
Coppin State: Activities start at 9 p.m. at the Coppin Center, where there will be a slam-dunk and shooting contest for students, prize giveaways and a disc jockey. The men's team will begin practice at 12:01 a.m.
Maryland: Event at Cole Field House begins at 7 p.m. with a Duke-Terps women's volleyball game, and includes a visit by broadcaster Dick Vitale, a Vitale sound-alike contest, a slam-dunk exhibition, an indoor fireworks display, a brief team scrimmage and a three-point shootout featuring the Terps.
Navy: Event at Alumni Hall will start at 7:30 p.m. with two alumni basketball games. At 11 p.m., there will be a slam-dunk contest and three-point shootout for the brigade of midshipmen. The Navy team will take the floor at midnight for a 45-minute scrimmage.
Towson State: Festivities begin at 8:30 p.m., when the Towson State volleyball team plays North Carolina A&T.; There will be contests for fans and live music leading up to midnight practice sessions for the men's and women's teams.