COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Some of the visions Maryland basketball players will carry with them during the offseason: bounce passes skidding out of bounds, balls falling off fingertips, shots slipping out of rims. In summing up their winless season in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Terrapins find that small details made the big difference.
Maryland (9-18, 0-14 in the ACC) came so close in so many games that it seemed sure the Terrapins would back into at least one conference win. Instead, nine of their ACC losses came by nine points or fewer, and seven came by seven points or fewer.
Statistically, they finished almost even with opponents, and with a meeting against No. 2 North Carolina in the first round of the ACC tournament Friday at Capital Centre remaining, they are grappling to find the missing ingredient that kept them from winning.
Among their more frustrating losses, the Terrapins fell to Clemson, 80-79, after getting the last shot, lost twice to Georgia Tech by four points each, and lost their second meeting with North Carolina by 93-86 in Cole Field House.
"I'm not discouraged," Maryland Coach Bob Wade said. "We came from nothing to something. We were in a position to challenge for a lot of games. There was a concern at first that we would not even be competitive. But as the games progressed we became more confident. So we accomplished what we wanted to."
Where Maryland looks to find the missing link is on a roster that included two freshman starters in point guard Teyon McCoy and forward Steve Hood and two sophomore starters in forward David Dickerson and guard John Johnson. It was a young team that made a lot of turnovers--the Terrapins lost the ball 394 times to 354 for opponents.
Their final regular season game, an 82-77 loss to Virginia Sunday, was a virtual blueprint of the season. In one stretch at the start of the second half, a three-point deficit went to 11. The Terrapins never caught up, done in by one series of lapses in which they turned over the ball four times.
"It was turnovers in crucial situations," Wade said. "That contributed to us not scoring for say, X-number of minutes in any half, particularly the second. It was just carelessness or not concentrating, anticipating a teammate being there, and then he wasn't. As far as a missing link in the stats, that would be it."
At one point, the Terrapins lost three of five ACC games by four points or fewer. They lost at Georgia Tech, 76-72; at Clemson, 80-79, and at home to Georgia Tech again, 78-74. In between those games they lost more decisively, at Wake Forest, 69-58, in what may have been the low point of the season, and at Duke, 76-67.
Maryland's problems went beyond just youth. Maryland's players, especially the younger ones, lacked confidence in tight situations that ACC veterans acquire only after several years.
"At the end, there was more pressure not to make that mistake," freshman guard Mark Karver said. "People would start thinking about the turnover that would be remembered, the one missed shot. That's scary for all players, and more scary for younger ones. It's not on the older players' heads so much. No one wanted to be the one."
As a result, other than junior Derrick Lewis, the Terrapins did not have a take-charge player. When it mattered most, their play lacked aggression, and Lewis consequently was ganged up on.
"Sometimes they played not to make mistakes, instead of just trying to play well," Lewis said. "So sometimes we would be hesitant. Especially at the end of games."
Not that Maryland played poorly. Hood and McCoy probably performed far above expectations--Hood averaged 13.9 points, McCoy averaged 7.6 and had 113 assists to 69 turnovers. The sophomores were less spectacular--Johnson, a proven scorer from last season, averaged 10.9 points but often wasn't a factor; Dickerson was a force defensively and on the boards, but was less effective as a scorer (8.2 points).
The problem was that other ACC teams had several players who could dominate. If Joe Wolf had a bad night for North Carolina, Kenny Smith could do damage. If Horace Grant was having trouble inside for Clemson, guard Michael Tait was a threat as one of the best three-point shooters in the league.
"That goes with seniority," Wade said. "We had one kid in Derrick Lewis who could step forward and take the shot when it mattered, try to take control of the game. But we needed more like that. We did a commendable job, I'm not knocking the kids. It's just that a lot of these teams have a number of kids who thrive on it, the Michael Taits and Kenny Smiths. It's something that has to be learned."
Of course, Lewis almost won a couple for the Terrapins singlehandedly. He finished the season averaging 19.8 points, second in the conference only to Grant. He also finished tied for most blocked shots in the nation with David Robinson of Navy, each with 114.
For his efforts, Lewis was named first-team all-conference. He is only the fifth junior in Maryland history to make first-team all-ACC. The others were Len Bias, Albert King, John Lucas and Tom McMillen.
"We're 0-0 now," Lewis said. "You could say sort of a weight is off us, it's a fresh start and a chance to show we can beat an ACC school.
"Inexperience is an old excuse. We're old now like everyone else. This is tournament time. You're supposed to be ready and have it all down. It's a worn-out line."