COLLEGE PARK — Sitting in the stands at Xfinity Center on Sunday, Joe Smith and Keith Booth thought they were looking in a mirror — a 25-year-old mirror that took them back to their freshman season at Maryland as part of the youngest men’s basketball team Gary Williams ever coached.
As they watched this year’s team fail to hold on to a small lead in the second half and lose to then-No. 9 Michigan, 69-62, the two former stars thought back to similar games they played with a team that had a similar roster composition.
At the start of the 1993-94 season, Smith and Booth joined sophomores Johnny Rhodes, Exree Hipp and Duane Simpkins on a team that had its share of ups and downs — including pair of narrow losses to North Carolina, ranked first and second when they played the Tar Heels, and one to No. 2 Duke.
“Young team, young talent, coming into the season a lot of people didn’t expect too much from us, the same situation they were in, but they came out surprising a lot of people the same way we did,” Smith said during Saturday’s 100-year celebration gala in Baltimore. “It reminds me a lot of what we went through.”
That team would finish 18-12 overall and fifth in the Atlantic Coast Conference at 8-8 in league play. It won six of its first seven ACC games, then suffered a four-game losing streak that started a stretch of seven losses in the last 10 games in the regular season. After a first-round loss to Virginia in the ACC tournament, the Terps limped into the postseason.
The surprise came in the NCAA tournament, the first for Williams since he returned to his alma mater in 1989 and inherited a program from Bob Wade that was shackled with severe sanctions from the NCAA. As the 10th seed in the Midwest Regional, Maryland knocked off the seventh seed, No. 24-ranked Saint Louis, and the second seed, No. 8-ranked Massachusetts, in Wichita, Kan.
Smith can see Maryland on a similar path this season.
“The way they’re playing, they’ve had a little bump in the road, but it’s all about building that momentum in March and finishing off strong,” said Smith, who was the ACC’s Rookie of the Year as a freshman and the league’s Player of the Year as a sophomore before leaving to become the No. 1 pick in the 1995 NBA draft.
In coach Mark Turgeon’s eighth season, the Terps appear headed to their fourth NCAA tournament appearance in the past five years, and are currently projected to be a No. 5 seed, according to several mock brackets. Maryland has reached the Sweet 16 only once — in 2015-16 — since 2003.
A quarter-century ago, the Terps went to the Sweet 16 in Dallas, where they lost to the No. 3 seed, 11th-ranked Michigan. It began a run of 11 straight NCAA tournament appearances under Williams, including seven Sweet 16s, the program’s first Final Four appearance in 2001 and its only national championship the following year.
Booth, who has remained in Baltimore for most of his adult life and served as an assistant coach under Williams from 2004 through the future Hall of Famer’s retirement in 2011, said many of the games this year’s team has played remind him of several of those he played in as a freshman after a celebrated career at Dunbar.
“From a youth standpoint, from a talent standpoint, I look at the season overall, a young team that had its ups and downs, like we did my freshman year,” Booth said Saturday. “I remember some games when we let up, games that we should have won but were looking ahead. But the talent [on this year’s team] is there.”
Smith, who lives in Atlanta but still watches Maryland whenever he has a chance, said that the team’s recent play — with six losses in the past 11 games after a 16-3 start and 7-1 start in the Big Ten — is typically the sign of a young team.
Currently fifth in the Big Ten, Maryland has started freshmen Jalen Smith (Mount Saint Joseph) and Eric Ayala for the entire season, two sophomores in Bruno Fernando and Darryl Morsell (Mount Saint Joseph) and junior Anthony Cowan Jr. with three other freshmen in Turgeon’s rotation.
Asked what the hardest thing is for a young team to do, Joe Smith said: “Probably just finishing games. That’s something only experience can really help you with. When you have a young team at this level that’s not used to finishing games, it can be a troubling issue at times.”
Said Williams: “The hardest thing for a young team is to keep them focused. You win a great game and you know practice the next day is going to be hard because they’re all cocky and they won. If you have a tough loss, you’ve got to find a way to get them back up. Those things are going to happen during a 30-game season.
“With a veteran team a lot of times, you don’t have to worry about situations as much because you understand they’ve been through it before and they know how to handle it. With a veteran team, sometimes there’s complacency. We’ll be all right, we’ll win enough games to get to the NCAA tournament because they’ve done it before.”
Booth said the improvement of the two sophomores this season is reminiscent of how the three sophomores he played with as a freshman raised their respective games from the previous season, when Maryland finished 12-16 (2-14 and last in the ACC), one of only two losing records in Williams’ 22-year career at Maryland.
“This can be a real special group,” Booth said. “The big fella [Fernando] has been pretty much holding down the middle all year, improving game by game. A guy like Morsell reminds me a little bit of myself. He’s been improving as well. Hopefully they can hit their [stride] the next couple of weeks and make a run in the tournament.”