Terps aim for Tigers, loaded ACC Earliest league test for No. 23 UM comes at No. 17 Clemson; 7 conference teams ranked; No. 2 Kansas awaits Sunday at MCI Center


CLEMSON, S.C. -- Polls? Obinna Ekezie is trying not to pay them any mind, but the Atlantic Coast Conference is another matter.

"Georgia Tech beat Alabama, St. John's and Louisville in Puerto Rico," Ekezie said. "Florida State is playing harder for its new coach, they played very well against Kansas. N.C. State beat Georgia, they're going to be competitive. It's going to be an interesting season."

No. 23 Maryland features Ekezie in the middle, which was the consensus preseason opinion on where the Terps would finish in the most heralded of the nation's 30 conferences. The hardest haul in college basketball begins tonight (9 o'clock) at Clemson, and while it's Maryland's earliest ACC game ever, there are only 94 statement days left until Selection Sunday.

For all its tradition, the ACC has never put seven teams in the NCAA tournament, but that's how many the conference has in the Associated Press Top 25 this week. Only once before has a conference had that much representation. The Big Ten had seven teams in the Jan. 11, 1993 poll.

After No. 17 Clemson, the Terps face No. 2 Kansas on Sunday and either George Washington or Penn on Monday in the Franklin National Bank Classic at the sparkling new MCI Center, but coach Gary Williams is obsessing on more familiar obstacles.

"In reality, the most important game is Clemson, without a doubt," Williams said.

Lose to night, and the Terps don't get a chance to get to .500 in the ACC until Jan. 3, when Duke comes to Cole Field House, presumably still ranked No. 1. Both the precocious Blue Devils and No. 3 North Carolina were somebody's preseason favorite, and it's what everyone else in the ACC is doing which could make for a wild winter.

Virginia and N.C. State are the conference's only unranked teams, but even the Wolfpack has that win over No. 21 Georgia. Maryland (3-1) moved up one spot this week, but it was still leap-frogged by Florida State and Georgia Tech, which have helped the ACC get off to one of its best starts ever.

According to Ekezie and Williams, who can become the first coach to take Maryland to five straight NCAA tournaments, the Terps spent too much time pondering the rankings and not enough on their play last season. Maryland made an unexpected run to a No. 5 ranking in late January, only to go 4-9 the rest of the season.

"They were kind of shocked to get to fifth in the country," Williams said. "You have to be able to handle that. You have a tendency to reach a level of complacency when you've done more than people expect. You have to keep a level head about a great win or a tough loss. You can't let it affect your next game. lTC Maybe that happened last year."

And maybe Maryland paid in the end for a rotation that was only seven players deep. The Terps lost four-year starter Keith Booth to the Chicago Bulls, but freshmen Terence Morris, Mike Mardesich and LaRon Cephas give Williams many more lineup options than he had last season.

"When Obinna [Ekezie] got in foul trouble against Clemson last year, we were very small," Williams said. "That won't happen this year."

Cephas, a power forward, missed the past two games recuperating from a hernia operation, but returned to practice Tuesday. The 6-foot-8 Morris could be a star in waiting, and 7-footer Mardesich looks as if he could have helped the Terps last year instead of red-shirting.

Fellow Dunbar High grad Rodney Elliott has shifted from sixth man to the starting power forward spot, and has shot better outside the three-point line than in. Wing Laron Profit has looked comfortable everywhere, making 57.4 percent of his attempts while averaging 21.8 points.

The backcourt of Terrell Stokes and Sarunas Jasikevicius was outplayed in a season-opening overtime loss to No. 5 South Carolina, then enjoyed rolling past three outmanned teams from minor conferences.

Williams saw balance and unselfishness in the three routs, but Clemson coach Rick Barnes said he is concerned that the Tigers (3-2) are becoming a two-man team. The backcourt of Greg Buckner and point Terrell McIntyre is having to do much for Clemson, which is coming off losses to Gonzaga and Kentucky.

"We know pretty much what to expect from Greg and Terrell," Barnes said, "but we need to get more from the other guys."

Like Maryland, Clemson swooned last February. The Tigers started 16-1 and were ranked as high as No. 2, but staggered into the ACC tournament, where they were beaten by the Terps. Now both begin another run that might end with some worthy teams getting left out of the NCAAs.

"After Duke and North Carolina," Barnes said, "there isn't any difference between the rest of the teams in the league."

Pub Date: 12/04/97

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