Early exits haven't hurt ACC in least

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Exciting as this season has been for Maryland, imagine what it would be like if Joe Smith had stayed in school.

Actually, you don't have to imagine.

Just look at Wake Forest today.

The Demon Deacons feature three senior starters, including Tim Duncan, the likely No. 1 pick in the NBA draft.

The eight other ACC schools have only nine senior starters combined -- due in part to the defections of Smith, Rasheed Wallace and Jerry Stackhouse two years ago.

Would North Carolina be 2-3 in the conference with Wallace, Stackhouse and Jeff McInnis, who departed last year?

Of course not.

But would Maryland be 14-2 overall with Smith?

At least.

Granted, it's fun to ponder the Terps with Obinna Ekezie at center, Smith at power forward and Keith Booth at small forward.

But you know what?

It's fun to watch them without Smith, too.

Indeed, for all the talk of the early departures ruining the college game, precisely the opposite has occurred.

Smith, the North Carolina stars and Georgia Tech's Stephon Marbury are missed, but the ACC is as interesting as ever.

Wednesday night's game between No. 3 Clemson and No. 11 Maryland was a classic by any standard, even though Florida State coach Pat Kennedy said there might not have been an NBA player on the floor.

Really, nothing is missing this season, except preening underclassmen, senior wanna-bes and agents lurking behind every door.

It's college basketball for the sake of college basketball.

What a concept.

"There are 4,000 Division I athletes in college basketball," North Carolina coach Dean Smith said. "You can't say it's a real huge problem to the vast majority of schools.

"To a Maryland or North Carolina, yes -- and if Wake had lost Duncan to the pros. I believe Stanford's golf team won't be as good this year without Tiger Woods.

"These things happen. Individuals do what's best for themselves. College basketball is still alive and well. There's a lot excitement."

A different kind of excitement?

Certainly.

But excitement nonetheless.

Just as today's Maryland-Wake game could have been a dramatic showdown between Smith and Duncan, the Maryland-California game would have taken on another dimension if Smith had faced Shareef Abdur-Rahim.

But those days are gone, and they're not coming back.

Kennedy said the threat of losing underclassmen is changing the way coaches recruit. They're considering which players will stay four years, which will fill roles, which will help chemistry.

In this day and age, that's a formula for success. It's not as potent as Wake's formula, but Demon Deacons coach Dave Odom hit the lottery when Duncan chose to avoid the NBA lottery -- twice.

No one could fault Smith for leaving Maryland -- he wanted to help his family financially. Plus, he's averaging 20.2 points and 8.9 rebounds, almost exactly what he did as a Terp.

Wallace leads the NBA in field-goal percentage. Marbury is a Rookie of the Year candidate. Even Stackhouse, considered a disappointment, is averaging 18.4 points.

Each made the right decision (only McInnis, waived by the Denver Nuggets on Dec. 13, is an outright bust). But Duncan made perhaps the best decision -- he could be a superstar in the NBA.

"Is he bigger? Is he stronger? Yes, there's no question about it," Odom said. "He's a year older. He's a full-grown 20-year-old now, headed for 21.

"His strength is better. He's harder to defend with the basketball. Yes, he's a better player than he was last year."

And his team is unbeaten and ranked No. 2 in the country. Duncan, remember, might have been the No. 1 pick as a sophomore. This way, he might be the No. 1 pick -- and a national champion.

"Wake is one of the finest teams I've seen in the ACC," Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins said.

Maryland might have been, too, if Smith had stayed. Then again, everyone thought last year's senior-laden team would be better than it was.

"I think about Joe once in a while," Williams said. "I see him on the highlights. I'm happy for his success. In coaching, you learn you have to go with what you have. But the thought crosses your mind.

"You also wonder sometimes, the team plays a certain way, could it play that way with Joe Smith? You want a great player any time you can get a great player. But we're having fun with it right now. We've got a nice blend.

"Obviously, Joe would make us a better team. There aren't many times you get someone like Joe in college to defend the way he did. But at the same time, we're trying to be the best team we can be."

Maryland is good, the ACC is good, college basketball is good.

Really, there's no problem.

Pub Date: 1/19/97

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