On his left pectoral, close to his heart, Maryland’s other-worldly sophomore center Joe Smith wears a tattoo … of a bulldog.
Has he been, without fanfare and publicity, a longtime Gonzaga fan? Always wanted to be Jeff Brown or Mike Champion when he grew up?
“It’s because my friends call me ‘The Beast’,” Smith has explained of the snarling adornment.
Most observers might suggest that Smith, a 6-foot-10 candidate for national Player of the Year honors, will be the one tattooing the Bulldogs - of the Gonzaga variety - during Thursday’s NCAA Tournament opener at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City.
After all, Maryland has played in 11 NCAA Tournaments and has never been beaten in a first-round game.
But this game, which tips off 30 minutes after the completion of the 5 p.m. PST matchup between Oregon and Texas, has some interesting subplots.
For instance, a team like the No. 10-ranked Terrapins (24-7) might carry a load of overconfidence - probably warranted - into the game against little-known Gonzaga (21-8).
How confident? Well, Letha Smith, Joe’s mother, reportedly has told her bosses at the Norfolk (Va.) Naval Hospital that she needs the first week of April off. She’s planning a trip to Seattle, where, not coincidentally, the Final Four will be contested.
It’s probably of little consequence that a mother of one of the players isn’t taking them one game at a time.
Let’s advance, now, to Maryland coach Gary Williams. Williams’ success the last few seasons has led some to slightly suggest the name of the school be changed to Garyland.
Williams apparently holds the Bulldogs in high regard.
“Gonzaga is interesting in that we don’t know much about them back here, it’s not a team we see on television much,” Williams said. “I know they won 24 games and they’re big, and in Riley, they have a very good 3-point shooter.”
Don’t quibble with the facts that GU has won 21 games and the 3-point shooter is John Rillie. Williams knows what he must do to have success against the Bulldogs: defend hard.
“It’s one of those teams you have to go out and get after defensively, and that’s something we need to be sure that we do.”
Although the Terrapins tied for the Atlantic Coast Conference title with a 12-4 record, it has been a difficult time for Williams.
On Feb. 28, he was admitted to a Maryland hospital to combat a case of pneumonia. He was released March 8, but he didn’t return to team practice until Tuesday.
“I feel pretty good, I got tired a bit, but I’m sure I’ll be fine for the tournament,” Williams said. “I had never missed, in 27 years, a practice or a game, and it was tough.”
He was able, however, to watch the Terps’ ACC Tournament games on TV, which, he said, gave him some new perspectives.
“I was able to take some notes,” Williams said. “I made sure there was nothing close to me that I could throw at the TV if things went wrong because I didn’t want to have to buy a new TV.”
What he saw on TV was his replacement, assistant Billy Hahn, set an unofficial NCAA record for volume of perspiration in a narrow loss to North Carolina. “He was sweating for both of us,” Williams said.
Williams said he doesn’t feel particularly strong, having lost 15 pounds.
His team, however, looks strong at every position. And it’s probably not stretching much to suggest that each of Maryland’s top six players would be more highly regarded by scouts than GU’s best. Every starter played on last year’s Sweet 16 club - and all are underclassmen.
Each earned first-, second-, or third-team All-ACC accolades.
Smith, averaging 20.9 points and 10.4 rebounds a game, ran away with the ACC Player of the Year honors.
He blocked 89 shots this season - the same number the entire GU team blocked.
As soon as Smith decides to sell his talents to the NBA which may be as soon as this spring - he will certainly be a lottery pick. He has already purchased a $1 million insurance policy against an injury that would keep him out of the NBA.
In a game against No. 11-ranked Virginia, Smith showed how devastating he can be in all regards, with 29 points, 21 rebounds, seven blocked shots and three steals.
“He gets in a zone sometimes when it looks like he makes up his mind that nobody else is going to get a rebound,” Williams said of Smith.
Teammate Exree Hipp put it more colorfully after that game: “Superman was in the building tonight.”
Superman gets plenty of help, though.
Six-foot-4 guard Johnny Rhodes, considered one of the nation’s best defenders, led the ACC in steals the past two years, swiping the ball 82 times this season.
The 6-8 Hipp and 6-5 Keith Booth man the forward positions, with 6-foot Duane Simpkins running the offense from point guard.
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