LEXINGTON, Ky. -- They have won tournaments in the nation's capital and in Puerto Rico. They have blasted quality opponents at Cole Field House and on neutral courts. But tonight Maryland's Terrapins will sample the heat at the center of the college basketball universe.
It's the No. 2 Terps at No. 5 Kentucky, a program of promise against one of accomplishment. The Wildcats have the most wins in the history of the college game. They have two NCAA titles in the last three seasons, and tonight (8: 30, ESPN) they'll experience something even rarer: an opponent that's gotten more hype than themselves.
How badly does Kentucky (8-1) want Maryland (10-0)? Listen to the boasts of Jamal Magloire, the junior center who thus far has been a bust.
"They [Maryland] have an athletic team, but they're not the University of Kentucky," Magloire said before practice yesterday. program in America works as hard as us. It doesn't matter to me if they see it [his comments]. The rankings don't mean anything. We've got a great team here."
This matchup was supposed to happen two weeks ago, but Maryland, not Kentucky, was the exceptional team at the Puerto Rico Shootout.
The day after the Wildcats had a 17-game victory streak stopped by Pittsburgh, the Panthers were bounced by the Terps' troupe of acrobats, which fashioned a remarkable 20-0 run in the title game.
That tournament began with Maryland's first away date, a 50-point pounding of the American University of Puerto Rico that could have been much worse. In fact, the Terps consider this their first road game, and this is as inhospitable as it gets. In their 23 years at Rupp Arena, the Wildcats are 294-34.
"We have guys who have played in just as tough places, like Duke and Clemson," Terps coach Gary Williams said. "Our league experience will help."
Actually, Maryland suffered harsh defeats at those Atlantic Coast Conference locales last season. The Terps crumbled at the end of their ACC opener at Clemson, and they meekly went down at Duke, where Williams was ejected and they lost by 27.
That was then. This is now.
Williams hasn't had reason to fume at officials, because three seniors and two sophomores have meshed seamlessly with three freshmen and junior-college transfer Steve Francis, the nation's premier newcomer. He and freshmen Juan Dixon and Danny Miller have played fearlessly, but none has encountered a setting like 23,000-seat Rupp Arena.
Both teams prefer to press or trap, and start their offense with their defense. Both run three-guard attacks. Both scored solid wins this week against more deliberate opponents, as the Terps took Stanford and the Wildcats needed an overtime to subdue Indiana.
If there's been an edge, it's that Maryland has easily incorporated its four rookies, while Kentucky hasn't been one big, happy family.
Its on-floor communication wasn't what it needed to be in November. A tumultuous off-season that resulted in two-game suspensions for Magloire, Ryan Hogan and Myron Anthony, who last week quit the 'Cats, didn't help. Big, mobile forward Scott Padgett also visited Smith's doghouse when he missed 18 straight three-pointers.
The game could turn on the probable matchup between Padgett and Terence Morris, the sophomore forward from Frederick who is averaging team highs of 16.6 points and 6.4 rebounds. When Smith was asked which Maryland player Kentucky needs to contain first, he mentioned Morris, not Francis.
"When I saw him [Morris] play last year, you could see he was an exceptional athlete and it was just a matter of time," Padgett said. "Right now, he's playing as well as anyone in the country. You've got to try to keep the ball out of his hands. He just doesn't take any bad shots. You can't take bad shots and shoot 70 percent."
Morris' field goal percentage is .688, a school-record pace. All of the quicker Terps have gotten good looks from the full-court pressure that was their trademark in the first eight games.
Maryland survived Stanford last Sunday despite getting just three baskets in the second half in its half-court offense, but that facet could not have been better in the championship game of the BB&T; Classic. The Terps' half-court motion matured in a 92-75 win over DePaul, and they had better be ready to work for every basket tonight.
If Maryland is victorious, it will clear the biggest hurdle between it and its first 12-0 start. The Terps have twice been 11-0, most recently two years ago, when Keith Booth and company were finally stopped by Georgia.
The Bulldogs' boss then was Smith, the native of the Southern Maryland town of Scotland who wanted to play with the Terps when he was a senior at Great Mills High in 1969. When Lefty Driesell came to Maryland, it grew out of Smith's league.
Smith has another painful recruiting memory that involves the Terps. Last March, when Kentucky was tracking its seventh NCAA championship, the Wildcats made a late run at Francis. He scheduled a recruiting visit here for two days after they beat Utah in the title game, then canceled it, making Williams a happy man.
Heshimu Evans, the versatile wing who is the Wildcats' top scorer (13.8) and rebounder (6.6), is the best bet to slow Francis. At the point, seniors Terrell Stokes and Wayne Turner will spar for control. Obinna Ekezie must attack 6-10 Michael Bradley, and all of the Terps want to post what would be the most impressive line on their resume.
"I'm sure they'll want to prove that they're deserving of their ranking," Smith said. "This is as good a place as any to do it."
Opponent: No. 5 Kentucky
Site: Rupp Arena, Lexington, Ky.
TV/Radio: ESPN/WMAL (630 AM), WBAL (1090 AM)
Terps fever: Chronicling Maryland's rise to No. 2 ranking, its highest in 22 years.
Maryland's visit to No. 5 Kentucky carries considerable historical significance.
The No. 2 Terps are the highest-ranked team to play at Rupp Arena since Dec. 15, 1979, when No. 1 Indiana was upset by coach Joe B. Hall's fifth-ranked Wildcats, 69-58.
The last time Kentucky entertained a higher-ranked opponent at Rupp came on Feb. 9, 1994, when No. 3 Arkansas beat the fourth-ranked Wildcats, 90-82. That Arkansas team went on to win the NCAA title.
Pub Date: 12/12/98