COLLEGE PARK -- Gary Williams tells his seniors that it's their basketball team, and the highest compliment one can pay this Maryland class is that they had the presence of mind to share it.
If not for a career-ending injury, Williams would be considering starting five seniors against Clemson tonight at Cole Field House. It's the final home appearance for Laron Profit and Terrell Stokes, who are delighted to be on a power even if its top stars are named Steve Francis and Terence Morris.
Williams coaches the nation's No. 5 team, where a stellar group of newcomers that includes Francis and three freshmen meshed nicely with five holdovers from a Sweet 16 team. The situation has been a far cry from 1995-96, when this senior class wasn't as easily absorbed on to a team remembered as an underachiever.
"I hate to go back to my freshman year, but we had a team like that," Profit said. "We joke about it now, but the chemistry was wrong. Then, the older guys didn't think they needed us. They thought they could do it on their own. We looked back, and we didn't want to make the same mistake.
"We want the young guys to feel a part of it. We need them."
In that regard, Williams said this class learned a valuable lesson from Keith Booth, a senior class of one from two years ago.
"If the seniors are good with younger players, when the younger players become seniors, they give the same thing back," Williams said. "The thing is, that has to start someplace. Keith did a great job of that. He didn't care who was playing, he just wanted to win."
The class of '96 actually was ahead of the curve in heaping abuse on this group of seniors. According to Williams, it's not as if much was expected of Profit, Stokes and Obinna Ekezie, anyway.
"Those three were all criticized in their own way before they even played here," Williams said. "Laron is from Delaware, and it was like, 'Nobody from Delaware can play.' Obinna was a project, I remember reading all about that. And Terrell had played with Rasheed Wallace [in high school], and that's why he was good.
"They had to come through all that and stay true to themselves as players."
The challenges did not let up this season.
Williams said that Stokes took control of the Terps (23-4, 11-3 in the Atlantic Coast Conference) earlier this month, but the Philadelphian had to keep his cool when fans and media were calling for him to be supplanted at the point by Francis, the junior-college transfer.
Stokes has been an offensive option only when it's been an absolute necessity, and his average of 6.4 assists matches the school record. He also has been out front of an effort that has produced the best field-goal percentage defense (.384) in the ACC, and his work down the stretch against Terrell McIntyre was crucial to an overtime win at Clemson Jan. 24.
Profit began the season as the most heralded forward in the conference, but he passed up some open looks early and fell into a miserable perimeter shooting slump.
By December, it was obvious that Morris had arrived as a force in the college game. Instead of sulking, Profit smoothed out his jumper, and over the last 16 games, he's been the Terps' most consistent three-point shooter. Since a Dec. 12 loss at Kentucky, he's hit 23-for-49 (.469) beyond the arc.
Ekezie, who will be at tonight's game in a walking cast, will leave Maryland with 1,172 points and 835 rebounds. Nothing good comes out of an Achilles' tendon injury to an affable big man, but there is no denying that the Terps have carried a greater sense of urgency since his career ended at practice Feb. 9. Since he went down, the Terps have shifted their game into an even higher gear.
"It's kind of like a wounded animal that comes out fighting," Profit said. "With Obinna gone, we knew people would doubt us. 'You might not be good enough for the Final Four. You might be Sweet 16 material.' We feel that we want to show people we've got enough firepower to reach our goals."
Ekezie's absence has meant more playing time for forward Brian Watkins, who came to Maryland the same year as the aforementioned seniors, but with a twist. As a transfer from Notre Dame, he sat out the 1995-96 season, and only got a chance to show his sweet shooting stroke after the Ekezie emergency.
Stokes nicknamed Watkins "Base" after another Brian he knew from Philadelphia. Norman Fields, the other senior, is known as the "Hammer," for his approach to practice, where he doesn't back down from the recruited players.
"My best memory is of a fight I had with Keith Booth my freshman year in practice," Fields said. "I figured if I can face him, I won't be afraid of anybody else. I went to the hole, he pushed me. He swung, I swung. It was a nice little initiation."
Fields was placed on scholarship just before his sophomore year.
The gang of five is 45-9 at Cole, which makes them a pretty good pick tonight, since Clemson (15-12, 4-10) is 0-7 on the road in the ACC. The seniors' four-year record is 82-39, the best winning percentage by a Maryland class in the past two decades.
There is, however, unfinished business.
The seniors have not gotten past the semifinals of the ACC tournament. They're headed to their fourth NCAA tournament, but they were eliminated in the first round in their first two trips and only last year got a postseason win of note, as some late free throws by Ekezie pushed them past Illinois and into the Sweet 16.
"People remember most how you end your career," Profit said. "It's important to get far, so that our legacy is, 'Those guys were winners. They got to the Final Four. They won the NCAA tournament. They won the ACC tournament.' That's what we want to leave behind."
Site: Cole Field House, College Park
Time: 7 TV/Radio: ESPN/WBAL (1090 AM)
Line: Maryland by 16 Pub Date: 2/24/99