Terps have lots of heart, but not much aim

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Maryland coach Gary Williams held the stat sheet at arm's length, staring at it in horror.

"This," he said, "is like a nightmare."

Twenty-five percent shooting, 4-for-31 out of the starting frontcourt, 8-for-57 after Duane Simpkins and Rodney Elliott.

To think, the Terps almost beat UCLA yesterday, just as they almost beat Kentucky and Massachusetts.

And yet, they aren't nearly good enough.

Right now, they wouldn't finish 8-8 in the ACC, wouldn't make the NCAA tournament. Williams has nearly a month to make them better, and he's not going to waste it.

He held a 15-minute closed-door meeting with his players after yesterday's 73-63 loss in the Wooden Classic. And he promised to spend much of the cross-country flight home thinking about his team's future.

"They'll sleep," he said of his players. "I won't."

The Terps were supposed to win with their experience, their guile, their four senior starters. That plan isn't working. Williams said it is time to consider a new one.

Benching Exree Hipp? Williams is open to the idea. Starting Rodney Elliott? It's a possibility. A three-guard lineup with Simpkins, Terrell Stokes and Johnny Rhodes? Anything to increase scoring.

Maryland gets a three-game breather at Cole Field House (Rider, American and Maryland-Eastern Shore) before opening its ACC schedule at Georgia Tech on Jan. 3. By then, this team might look completely different.

"It's not out of panic," Williams said. "We're 3-3. We've lost to three pretty good teams, none at Cole Field House. There are some positive things to come out of this.

"We could have quit against Kentucky, and we didn't. We could have quit today, and we didn't. We should have put away UMass, and we didn't. But Wake Forest wasn't even in that position against UMass.

"Not everything is wrong," Williams said. "We're showing pretty good heart."

That is the one constant with Maryland. That is the reason it rallied from a 19-point second-half deficit yesterday to pull within five points with 11:07 left -- and four more times after that.

Why couldn't the Terps complete the comeback? For the same reason they couldn't hold a 16-point lead against UMass with Marcus Camby in foul trouble, the same reason they struggled against Towson State.

They can't shoot.

How can a team force 29 turnovers and lose by 10 points? How can it grab 28 offensive rebounds yet suffer extended scoring droughts? How can it manage only three assists playing an up-tempo game?

Because it can't shoot.

"We've all been shooting layups since fifth or sixth grade," said Simpkins, who led Maryland with 21 points. "We have to have the heart to go up and say, 'I want to make the shot.' "

They've got the heart. It's their ability that's in question. The Terps lack an inside game and an outside game. They weren't a great team with Joe Smith. They might be an NIT team without him.

If Jelani McCoy blocked 11 of their shots yesterday, how many will Wake Forest's Tim Duncan reject? If Maryland made only 19 field goals against UCLA, how many will it make against Virginia?

North Carolina and Duke are better than people thought. Georgia Tech and Florida State aren't exactly pushovers. No wonder Williams is worried. No matter how many combinations he tries, it might not matter.

Seriously, how good is UCLA? It lost three seniors off last season's national championship team -- Ed O'Bannon, Tyus Edney and George Zidek. And yesterday, it played the first 28 minutes without point guard Cameron Dollar.

Sure, the crowd of 17,330 was pro-UCLA. Still, the Bruins entered the game with losses to Santa Clara, Vanderbilt and Kansas. They're probably the fourth-best team in the Pac-10, behind Arizona, Stanford and California.

Maryland is the team with all the seniors; UCLA started a freshman, three sophomores and a junior. McCoy, Toby Bailey, J. R. Henderson -- they're all immensely talented. But this team is not UMass or Kentucky.

So, what should Williams do? Both Hipp and Booth entered the season with career shooting averages above 45 percent. Now Hipp is at 33 percent, and Booth is at 29 percent. Perhaps they simply need time to return to form.

Indeed, Williams should proceed with caution -- each possible change is problematic. It might help to switch Simpkins to shooting guard -- he's Maryland's best shooter, and is playing erratically at the point. But that move would make an already small lineup even smaller.

Hipp should be scoring 15 points per game; instead, he's little more than a defensive specialist. After 98 straight starts, he could use a wake-up call. Then again, maybe he deserves the chance to play out of it.

Elliott? He had 13 points and seven rebounds in 18 minutes yesterday, and clearly should play more if Mario Lucas won't step up. Stokes? Obinna Ekezie? Laron Profit? Ideally, each of the freshmen should be brought along slowly.

The next three weeks are critical. Williams said the Terps need to play better defense, create easier shots, get to the foul line more. Still, they had enough good looks yesterday. They just kept missing, that's all.

Williams stared at two reporters.

"Can either of you guys shoot?" he asked.

No, Gary. No one can.

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