MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Laron Profit sat in the Maryland dressing room at The Pyramid late Thursday night, his eyes closed, his mind as exhausted as his body. Like many of the Terrapins, the sophomore guard seemed worn down by a roller-coaster season.
The ride that took Maryland to 17 victories in its first 19 games and a No. 5 national ranking ended with nine defeats in its last 13 games and the Terrapins likely to fall out of the Top 25 rankings when the final poll is announced.
It ended with a 75-66 defeat to the 12th-seeded but 16th-ranked College of Charleston in the opening round of the NCAA tournament's Southeast Regional. It ended with fifth-seeded, 22nd-ranked Maryland's second straight loss in the first round of the tournament.
And it ended with the raising of some questions about next season before the Terrapins even returned to College Park. Would Profit, rumored to be thinking of transferring, be back? Would Maryland coach Gary Williams, rumored for a couple of jobs, stay at his alma mater.
As he opened his eyes, the normally loquacious Profit spoke in a hushed, almost inaudible, tone.
"I guess what we have to work on next year is building throughout the season, and not getting satisfied," said Profit. "We just had it this year and we lost it. I don't know when we lost it, but we did."
Asked of the rumor that he might transfer, possibly to South Carolina, Profit shook his head.
"That's ridiculous," said Profit, who was born in Charleston and still spends summers there with his family. "There's no truth to it."
Outside in the hallway, Williams faced questions about the future, both the team's and his own; about replacing the leadership of senior forward Keith Booth; about the reports circulating that he might wind up back at Ohio State next season.
"I've been there, done that," said Williams, who coached the Buckeyes for four years before coming to Maryland, and who had an often contentious relationship with former Terrapins athletic director Andy Geiger, now in the same position in Columbus.
So if neither Profit nor Williams leave, what will next year's team look like? It will be much bigger, more experienced and a great deal deeper than this year's team, all factors in Maryland's second-half fade. But will the Terrapins be any better?
Williams will have to find a go-to guy. The obvious choice is Profit, who was good enough to make third-team all-ACC this year despite being erratic. But Profit will have to get stronger, both physically and mentally, to become a dominant player.
With redshirt freshmen Mike Mardesich and Laron Cephas eligible next season, the Terrapins will have more size and muscle off the bench. They will have two players who can come in if Obinna Ekezie gets in foul trouble, something Maryland sorely lacked this year.
"We'll be able to play a little different," said Williams. "Next year, a guy can go really hard for five minutes and not worry about picking up a couple of fouls. We weren't able to do that this year and in a few games it really hurt us."
They will need more consistent performances from not only Profit, but from point guard Terrell Stokes. With the exception of the victory over Clemson in the ACC tournament, Stokes regressed badly as the season went on. The incident in which he and Profit broke curfew the night of that game left a sour taste among some of their teammates.
In the dressing room Thursday night, Ekezie spoke thoughtfully about how some, including himself, need to continue working on improving their games, and others, whom he didn't name, might work on improving their priorities.
"Everybody has to learn from this," said Ekezie, who made a significant jump from his freshman to sophomore year. "We have to learn from our mistakes, not just on the court."
With the possible addition of signees Terence Morris of Thomas Johnson and Juan Dixon of Calvert Hall, the Terrapins will add depth in the frontcourt and backcourt. But those two, as well as another top recruit, Mark Karcher of St. Frances, still have yet to meet academic requirements to play as freshmen.
If Morris and Dixon get their required board scores, they will give Maryland two things it lacked this year: an athletic frontcourt player who can shoot from the outside and a long-range shooting guard. But the added depth would mean a possible adjustment in roles and playing time for the team's three seniors, guards Matt Kovarik and Sarunas Jasikevicius and forward Rodney Elliott.
The toughest thing for Williams will be to find a leader to replace Booth. None of next season's seniors will play as prominent a role as Booth did this year, when he was named first-team All-ACC and third-team All-American, and Williams remembers what happened last year when none of his four seniors could provide the necessary leadership. Williams still marvels at what Booth accomplished.
"The biggest thing with Keith was that you never had to worry about him; all you did was mark him in the practice plan or the lineup," said Williams. "He never even missed as much as a practice with a sprained finger. That's amazing."
What was remarkable, in retrospect, was how well the Terrapins did early with limited resources. A team picked to finish eighth in the ACC wound up tied for fourth. A team most figured wouldn't even get to the postseason, made it to the NCAA tournament. A program that seemed on the brink of disarray last summer straightened itself out.
But until the questions about the futures of Williams and Profit fade, the questions about next season linger.
Pub Date: 3/15/97