CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Gary Williams bristled.
"We don't have a point-guard controversy, do we?" the Maryland coach asked before last night's 71-66 victory over Virginia. "We're the No. 5 team in the country."
True enough, but at some point the coach must start giving Steve Francis more minutes at the point, whether he cares to admit it or not.
Terrell Stokes played his second straight sub-par game last night. The Terps escaped with a sloppy road win, but they again unraveled in the second half, nearly blowing a 20-point lead.
It's hardly time to panic -- Maryland still figures to enter the NCAA tournament at something like 26-6, which should be good enough to earn at least a No. 2 seed.
Still, Williams needs to consider juggling minutes, especially in the wake of Maryland's humiliating 82-64 loss to Duke last Sunday, and the team's ragged play last night.
The coach isn't likely to bury Stokes, a senior who has been through the wars at Maryland. But two sequences in the final moments last night were illuminating.
Stokes threw the ball away when trapped with 1: 12 left. Francis dribbled through the entire Virginia team on Maryland's next possession, and got to the line.
Could this be any clearer?
Stokes doesn't make such plays. Stokes failed to take a shot in 35 minutes. Stokes has attempted three free throws all season -- one entering last night.
"This year, I think we need to use both Terrell and Steve -- that's to our credit," Williams said. "But Steve could be the full-time point guard [next season]."
Next season? Williams can only wish. There likely won't be a next season for Francis at Maryland, especially now that the NBA lockout has ended.
What matters is this season. And Williams' goal should be to get the ball in Francis' hands with minimal disruption. Admittedly, that will be no easy trick.
Still, it was Francis who helped thwart Virginia's comeback, penetrating, dishing, making spectacular passes as well as flying layups.
It was Francis who finished with 14 points, six assists and six rebounds, including one that sealed Maryland's victory after Donald Hand missed a running one-hander with 10 seconds left.
"He had that one stretch where he made some great plays, no doubt about it," Williams said. "We're going to be a good team if and when we get everyone involved in the offense, so teams can't just dwell on one guy.
"We have to shoot the ball better. We have to do some things better offensively. We're close. We're in a little lull right now. But we're in good position if we get a little better to really go."
Perhaps, but you've heard the jokes about Dean Smith being the only coach in America to hold Michael Jordan under 20 points per game.
If Francis is indeed the next Stephon Marbury, and he's likely to stay only one year, why shouldn't Williams try to get everything he can out of him?
The short answer is this: Maryland went to the Sweet 16 with Stokes last season and is 14-2 with him this season. Plus, Williams is loyal to his seniors, and Stokes is a good kid, maybe even a future coach.
That said, Williams benched Stokes for six games in favor of Matt Kovarik last season -- Matt Kovarik! How can he not consider benching Stokes for Francis?
Stokes' assist-to-turnover ratio is 3-to-1, but opponents need not guard him closely. He'll hit a three occasionally, but he doesn't break down defenses, and he's averaging only three points per game.
Francis has shot 74 free throws, second on the team only to Obinna Ekezie's 100. He could penetrate and distribute better than Stokes, and perhaps even elevate the other stagnant seniors, Ekezie and Laron Profit.
Stokes isn't quick enough to stop the dribble penetration of Duke's William Avery. Francis might be quick enough to guard Allen Iverson.
Again, the issue isn't exactly pressing, not when Maryland is significantly better than most of its ACC competition.
But Virginia coach Pete Gillen was screaming, "Patience! Patience!" early in the first half last night, and opponents will continue trying to get Maryland into half-court games.
Williams acknowledged that Francis could play more minutes at the point in the rematch with Duke on Feb. 3. But for now, he sees no reason to entertain such a shift.
"When it's time to play Duke again, you're going to take a look at that," Williams said. "But people have to keep it in perspective. Duke might be the best team in the country.
"They're our rival. They play in our conference. But there might be only one or two teams that beat them all year."
Yes, but isn't Williams' goal to be one of them? He played Walt Williams at the point when Williams was his best player. Point guard is Francis' natural position. It wasn't the Wizard's.
Stokes is averaging 27 minutes, third on the team to Profit and Francis. Why not reduce that to 15 to 20, and create more minutes for Juan Dixon at shooting guard and Lonny Baxter at power forward? By season's end, the Terps' best five might be Francis, Profit, Terrence Morris, Baxter and Ekezie.
Williams needs to act subtly, finesse a touchy situation. He won't want it to appear that he's taking the team away from Stokes. But he also needs to put his best possible five on the court.
The best five starts with Steve Francis handling the ball.
Pub Date: 1/08/99