Whenever the fire alarm rang, the game stopped. Not because there was a fire in the gym, but because the gym was located in the basement of a firehouse, and many of the guys playing basketball were firemen. The backboards were made of plywood. The rims were bent. The floor was slick tile laid over concrete. There was barely a foot from baseline to wall, and three-pointers were occasionally blocked by a heating unit that hung from the ceiling. The court was brutally hot in the summer and dimly lit most of the time, because many of the lights were smashed during emotional outbursts and the bulbs wouldn't be replaced for months. Steve Francis was 18 years old, and this was the only game he could find.
It is just 3½ miles from Francis's boyhood home in Takoma Park to Maryland's Cole Field House, but after high school it took him more than three years to get there. Talk about your scenic routes: Francis traveled to College Park by way of Milford, Conn.; Winter Haven, Fla.; Pasadena, Texas; and Cumberland, Md., trekking through a lot of basketball nowheres to finally get somewhere and become somebody. The kid brought new meaning to the term All-America as he covered most of the map on his way to Division I. These days Francis ignites No. 2-ranked Maryland, which is 10-0 after beating Stanford 62-60 on Sunday and DePaul 92-75 on Monday at the MCI Center in Washington, D.C.
You can almost see the chips on the shoulders of most of the Terrapins, especially the seniors—a group of talented players who until now have been erratic. Forward Laron Profit was recruited out of Dover, Del., hardly a basketball hotbed, and his shooting touch at Maryland has been so errant that his teammate Obinna Ekezie once noted, "Laron isn't always consistent, and when he's bad, he can be really bad." Then there's Ekezie, a 6'10" center from Port Harcourt, Nigeria, who had never played organized basketball until he came to the U.S. to attend Worcester (Mass.) Academy in 1993-He chose Maryland largely because he could major in both engineering and business there, but he arrived in '95 weighing 290 pounds. Says Profit, "When I first saw Obinna I wanted to throw up. He was a fat slob who couldn't get over half-court." Or take point guard Terrell Stokes, who was so clueless a year ago that Terps coach Gary Williams removed him from the starting lineup for seven games last season.
Heck, consider Williams himself. He left a promising program at Ohio State in 1989, just months after signing future All-America Jimmy Jackson, to return to his alma mater, which was promptly slapped with two years of NCAA probation (for violations that occurred before Williams's arrival) and began losing to teams like Coppin State and Jacksonville. "We've all been through some tough times, so maybe there's a little vengeance involved this year," Profit says. "We don't just want to win, we want to win big. We're like a heavyweight champion who wants to prove he's the best by knocking everybody out cold in Round 1."
In its first eight games Maryland thrashed its victims by an average of 32.8 points. It won its opener against Western Carolina by 67 and later beat Duquesne by 34. In a 92-69 blowout of Wake Forest last Thursday, the Terps opened the game by sinking 14 straight shots, put together runs of 13-0 and 10-0, caused 18 turnovers and made 10 steals—and that was just in the first half. "It's hard to imagine them playing any better," said Demon Deacons coach Dave Odom, who after the game thanked Williams for not running up the score. "They're so quick in their press, and they keep bringing in new players who create more havoc."
Maryland has overwhelmed most of its opponents with a withering pressure defense. In wins over American University of Puerto Rico, UCLA and Pittsburgh in the Puerto Rico Shootout in November, the Terrapins forced a total of 68 turnovers. "Sometimes it feels like we've got nine guys out there," Profit says. "It reminds me of that UNLV team in 1990, which attacked the ball like piranhas."
The turnovers have led to lots of gimmes for Maryland on offense. Profit and Ekezie are scoring in double figures and shooting 50.5% and 45.2%, respectively. Francis is hitting 58.8% of his shots and getting 16.1 points a game. Stokes is playing to his strengths, averaging 6.4 assists and producing more steals than turnovers. Nearly lost in the frenzy has been the maturation of versatile sophomore forward Terence Morris, who leads the Terps with a 68.8% field goal percentage, scores 16.6 points a game and is their best shot blocker.
Maryland faced its toughest challenge of the young season on Sunday against fifth-ranked Stanford, a smart, experienced team that finally forced the Terps into a half-court game. Maryland fell behind 51-48 with 7:49 left to play—the first time all season that it trailed in the second half—when Francis made a steal and two layups to shift the momentum. Later, with the score tied at 57-57 and 1:22 left, Francis calmly hit two free throws to put the Terps ahead to stay. He finished with a career-high 24 points on a variety of stunning moves in a coming out party on national television. "Before today Steve was mostly a reputation," Williams said afterward. "Now he has a national name and face."
The win over the Cardinal allowed the Terrapins to maintain their No. 2 ranking as they looked ahead to an even tougher test at Kentucky this Saturday. That's Maryland's loftiest ranking since January 1976 and the 18th time the Terps have been voted second. Maryland has never been ranked No. 1.
Those bittersweet numbers fit with the Terrapins' image as being among college basketball's bridesmaids. Recent post-seasons have proved perilous for the Terps, including last March when they lost in the third round of the NCAAs and their plane was struck by lightning on the flight home. No Maryland team has ever gone to a Final Four, and the Terps haven't even reached a regional final since 1975. Williams has never advanced beyond the Sweet 16 in four chances as the coach at Boston College and Maryland, and the Terrapins haven't played in the ACC tournament title game in 14 years. "We talked about our postseason goals over the summer and then filed them away," Ekezie says. "We've learned to enjoy the moment, because there's no use dwelling on March Madness in December."