All eyes on surprise by Terrapins

THE BALTIMORE SUN

With the stunning reality of a 22-point comeback at North Carolina still echoing across the Atlantic Coast Conference and all of college basketball, it is time to ask a basic question about the Maryland Terrapins.

What in the world is going on here?

Picked by the cognoscenti to finish eighth in the ACC and miss the NCAA tournament for the first time in four years, the Terps have a 13-1 record after Wednesday's come-from-way-behind win at Carolina.

With only one starter back from last season, and three sophomores playing key roles, they have beaten real teams such as California, George Washington, Virginia, Pittsburgh, Georgia Tech and now Carolina at the Dean Dome with a 41-9 flurry to end the game. Yikes!

Having equaled the best record in school history after 14 games, they have risen in a hurry to join Carolina, Duke and Clemson as the best teams in the ACC other than dominant Wake Forest.

Keeping it up won't be easy with a long run of 13 ACC regular-season games left, but the Terps' place in the NCAA tournament is already all but assured.

What in the world is going on here? More and more, the Terps are looking like one of those "good chemistry" teams that surface every few years, their success unforeseen and not easily explained, but very real.

"We fit well together," coach Gary Williams said yesterday. "What we're saying around here is, 'Let's see how good we can be.' "

Virginia had such a "chemistry" team in the year after Ralph Sampson graduated; with expectations lowered, the Cavaliers wound up in the Final Four.

Connecticut had a memorable such team seven years ago, a collection of unknowns who ripped off 31 wins and came within a buzzer-beater of the Final Four.

Several other teams appear to fit the description this year. Oregon is 10-1 with five nondescript senior starters. Louisville is 12-1 despite losing Samaki Walker from last year's team. Minnesota is 14-1 after losing 13 games a year ago.

You never see prosperity coming with these teams; you just know it when you see it. And although the circumstances and explanations differ from team to team, there are basic qualities that all surprise teams share. The Terps are a classic example:

Growth from within. A surprise team is, by definition, a team that gets production from unexpected sources. There was reason for the Terps to expect quality play from Terrell Stokes and Laron Profit, but center Obinna Ekezie and guard Sarunas Jasikevicius have gone from minor players to major contributors. And who thought Keith Booth could average 20 points a game?

"We had a bunch of young guys who all had to play very important roles, and they're all doing it," Williams said. "We have seven guys with Rodney [Elliott] and Matt [Kovarik] coming off the bench, and they're all doing a great job."

In all, the five starters have almost doubled their combined per-game scoring average, from 32.7 points to 63.8 points. Of such improvements are surprise seasons made.

Strong leadership. Booth is more valuable as a leader than the four departed seniors combined. He might be Maryland's best leader since Buck Williams. He has a warrior's mentality on the court. He expects to win. He plays tough. He makes no excuses. His impact is huge.

"Of all the factors [contributing to 13-1], maybe the biggest is that Keith is our prominent senior player and yet he still plays so unselfishly," Williams said. "His being that way allows everyone else to pass, play defense, rebound and do all those things that no one gets noticed for doing. He's our rock."

Chemistry. The Terps are a superb passing team that always hits the open man. Their overall quickness is a good fit for Williams' up-tempo game. They're committed on defense, holding opponents to 37 percent shooting (as opposed to 45 percent last year). Booth, Ekezie and Elliott are solid rebounders. The pieces just fit.

Low expectations. It's always easier to play loose and easy when so little is expected and losses are just losses, not catastrophes.

"We started practicing in October, and by November I had an idea that we might exceed what people were expecting of us," Williams said. "You start to get an idea when things are going so well in practice. It's fun."

The expectations will rise now, of course; Williams already was worried about it yesterday as he sat in his office fielding congratulatory calls.

"As unique as this [Carolina] win was, the reality is that it doesn't make our season," Williams said. "This league is so hard. We go to North Carolina State on Sunday. That's a harder place to play than Chapel Hill. Next week, we have Clemson, which is No. 5 in the nation, and Wake Forest, which is No. 2. We have to put [Carolina] behind us."

It's asking too much to expect the Terps to maintain their current winning percentage in the ACC, but they're obviously a far more substantial team than anyone anticipated, blessed with all sorts of winning qualities.

How good can they be? That's the question Williams is asking the players these days, the question no one really can answer after a 13-1 start and a huge comeback at Carolina.

How good can the Terps be? As Dean Smith said Wednesday night, they're pretty good already.

Pub Date: 1/10/97

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