TEMPE, Ariz. - When their season went down, their guard went up.
In some ways, that is a fair assessment.
But it was also the sound of a frustrated coach trying to rationalize a disappointing season.
Santa Clara's surprisingly easy, 12-point victory exposed the weaknesses that encumbered the Terps all season. The lack of an inside presence on both ends of the court. The lack of a go-to scorer. Inconsistent outside shooting.
This was a team with basic structural problems in the wake of Joe Smith's departure.
Yet the ACC media still picked the Terps to win the conference in a preseason poll.
That, for sure, was expecting too much.
Wake Forest, with Tim Duncan, was the appropriate preseason pick.
But that doesn't excuse the Terps for losing 13 games, playing .500 ball in the ACC and losing to a team they had no business losing to yesterday, thus becoming the first team in school history to fall in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Considering what they had going for them, the Terps underachieved this season.
Expectations may have been too high, but not inordinately so.
The Terps had five of their top six players, including four seniors, TC returning from a Sweet 16 team. They also had a solid freshman class that contributed more than expected.
A lot of coaches around the country would trade for that collection of assets in a heartbeat.
The Terps' returning talent alone was enough to warrant a No. 15 ranking in the preseason Top 25. Had the Terps spent the year hanging around in that neighborhood the bottom of the Top 25 no one would have been surprised. It sounded about right.
Yet the Terps lost early against a tough schedule, fell out of the rankings four weeks into the season and never returned. What went wrong?
It's not hard to decipher, really. The seniors, except for Johnny Rhodes, didn't step up their games.
College basketball players are supposed to take on larger loads as they mature from unknowing freshmen to seasoned upperclassmen. The four Terps seniors Rhodes, Duane Simpkins, Exree Hipp and Mario Lucas combined to produced only 1.2 more points per game than they did as juniors. They averaged 46.4 points this season, 45.2 last season.
They were never going to fill the huge hole that Smith left, but they were supposed to fill more of it than they did.
In fairness, Simpkins, Lucas and particularly Rhodes scored more and assumed more responsibility than they did as juniors. Hipp's mysterious decline was the reason the seniors' combined average barely rose.
But aside from Rhodes, who had a fine season, the seniors didn't step up and carry the team in typical senior style.
Simpkins shot more accurately, but his floor game was erratic. Lucas scored more, but he was one-dimensional. Hipp, incredibly, became a non-factor.
For the Terps to hang around in the Top 25, they needed those players to follow the lead of junior forward Keith Booth, who expanded his role considerably, averaging five more points than he did as a sophomore. But Booth's lead wasn't followed.
Williams, fittingly, defended the seniors on the day their careers abruptly ended. They were the class that began the program's current renaissance.
"You have to look at the larger picture on a day like this," Williams said. "I feel really bad right now. But I know what these seniors did."
Williams insisted that just getting to the NCAA tournament was an accomplishment after it became clear early in the season that the pieces of the puzzle weren't meshing well.
"We had built a team around a really great player [Smith]," Williams said. "Without him, we had to change the way we operated. There weren't a lot of times when it was real predictable out there. Coaching-wise, it took a lot of work to get to the NCAA tournament."
In that regard, yesterday's loss was a fitting conclusion to the season. Out of the blue, the experienced Terps played like guileless freshmen.
When Santa Clara's frontcourt proved surprisingly formidable early on, the Terps abandoned their inside game and resorted to jacking three-pointers.
"That meant we weren't going to shoot many free throws," Williams said, "and we don't shoot [jumpers] well enough to win without getting to the free-throw line."
Once Santa Clara pulled ahead early in the second half, point guard Steve Nash, the best player on the floor, took over with his ball-handling and free-throw shooting.
The Broncos dominated. They were better inside, better outside, better everywhere.
It was an upset than didn't resemble an upset.
But it never should have happened.
An ACC team hadn't lost an NCAA tournament game to a West Coast Conference team since 1978.
"We know we're better," Lucas said, "but things just didn't go our way."
Not all season.
Pub Date: 3/16/96