They're Not a Sideshow : Without Smith, Terrapins Ready to Prove They Weren't a Solo Act

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He left them after only two seasons and too many great times to count. They were rolling, and he bolted when it looked brightest.

Hard feelings? Not at all. The bond endures.

If anything, Joe Smith's former Maryland teammates encouraged him to go. Friendship and the college experience are special--but worldwide stardom and wealth can make you feel good too.

Smith is with the Golden State Warriors now, learning the do's and don'ts of the NBA. The Terrapins who remain are doing just fine. Maryland won't be the same without him, but it won't be bad either.

Maryland plays UCLA in the Wooden Classic at 12:30 p.m. Saturday at The Pond of Anaheim.

"Obviously, we have a lot of guys who have new roles without Smith here," Maryland Coach Gary Williams said. "We don't have that one guy who can win the game for you down the stretch each time.

"A lot of people are going to have a little more pressure on them in clutch situations, but I really think we're going to be good."

Williams has to think positive. His colleagues, though, are less partial. They also agree.

Atlantic Coast Conference coaches voted Maryland the preseason favorite to win the conference title. It was the first time the Terrapins had been the coaches' top pick since 1981. And this without Smith, everybody's All-American and winner of the Naismith and Adolph Rupp player of the year awards.

The Terrapins weren't surprised. They would have been if they weren't the first choice.

"Well, we were here too," senior point guard Duane Simpkins said. "Joe didn't do it all by himself, we also helped.

"It's going to be a little bit tougher without Joe, so the whole team will have to step up. The seniors have taken it upon ourselves to do that."

It's a senior-dominated group, which should help.

Senior Johnny Rhodes is the other half of Maryland's starting backcourt, one of the ACC's best.

"Fans thought we were a one-man team," Rhodes said. "Anybody who really knows the game can see that wasn't right. Joe had other players around him that made him Joe Smith."

The group helped Smith become the No. 1 pick in the 1995 NBA draft. Smith got there by averaging 20.8 points, 10.7 rebounds and 2.9 blocked shots as a sophomore. Maryland reached the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16, finished 26-8 and in a four-way tie for first place in the ACC.

His buddies in College Park, Md., won't fall apart without him, Smith said. They have too much pride and, moreover, talent.

"[Maryland will have] a great season," he said. "They are going to be tougher than people expect."

Four-fifths of the starting lineup remains. Senior forward Exree Hipp and junior forward Keith Booth are athletic and crafty. They're also determined to stay near the top.

Besides, Smith isn't coming back. Maryland had to move on.

"Whenever you lose a Joe Smith in your lineup it's going to have some effect," Booth said. "But players change every year.

"It's up to the veteran players to keep it going."

Smith initially excited NBA decision-makers after averaging 19.4 points, 10.7 and 3.1 blocks as a freshman. Last season's numbers assured Smith of becoming an instant millionaire.

His friends thought he should take off.

"He's my best friend and he asked me about it," Hipp said. "He had to do it. He did the right thing for himself and his family."

The choice was tough but simple, Booth said.

"We were all 100% behind him," Booth said. "There are no hard feelings at all."

Smith talks frequently with his former teammates. It helps him handle the fun he's missing.

"I miss all of it," Smith said. "I miss the guys a lot. We were together all the time for two years. Plus, there's nothing like the social life at Maryland."

The Terrapins, ranked 20th, haven't looked especially sharp yet, but they aren't worried. With their offense, the victories should pile up.

"We've got a great group of kids," Hipp said. "We have five guys who can score. We just have to play together and gel."

Every Maryland starter averaged double figures in scoring last season. No matter the style of play, up tempo or half court, Maryland can compete. That won't change.

Rebounding will be a challenge, however. That figures when you lose one of the nation's best.

"That's the big problem," Simpkins said. "We can score with anyone in the country. Our problems lie in rebounding and trying to block shots."

Williams has a simple plan: Everyone must do more.

"We have to have a lot of guys with four to six rebounds a game," Williams said. "We don't have that guy who can get us 12 all the time and grab the key rebound."

Rhodes likes the concept. He has preached Williams' message since the first practice without Smith.

"Everyone has to do the job, including the guys on the bench," Rhodes said. "We have to make up for those rebounds we lost. We can only do that with the whole team."

Simpkins also believes. He does his part, especially when he's running the offense.

"We're coming at teams from all angles," he said. "We knew, and our opponents knew, that we were going into Joe when the clock was going down. Now, teams don't know what we're going to do."

Senior center Mario Lucas appears to have the toughest job, replacing Smith. Lucas is the first to say he's no Smith.

Enough pressure?

"Yeah, but it's good pressure," said Lucas, Maryland's sixth man last season. "I've been waiting for this situation my whole career."

And in a way, so have all the Terrapins.

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Wooden Classic

A look at one of three teams joining UCLA in the basketball doubleheader at The Pond Saturday.

* School: Maryland

* Game time: 12:30 p.m. against UCLA

* Conference: Atlantic Coast

* Coach: Gary Williams

* Record: 3-2

* TV: NBC

* Radio: KMPC (710)

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