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4. Maryland Three top-flight starters are back for the Terps, but it may be a well-traveled newcomer who carries them to St. Petersburg

In the championship game of Washington, D.C.'s renowned Nike
"Jabbo" Kenner League on Aug. 9, Steve Francis scored 32 points
to lead his team to the title. Francis drained acrobatic layups,
three-pointers and, in one especially memorable flurry, dunked
on four straight possessions. Late in the game the 2,000 fans at
Georgetown's McDonough Arena began to chant "Steve, Steve,
Steve" and booed lustily whenever another player touched the
ball. At this point an obvious question arises: Who the heck is
Steve Francis?

A native of Silver Spring, Md., the 20-year-old Francis played
only one year of high school basketball--as a 5'3" third-string
sophomore point guard--because of injuries and academic woes. He
has since grown a foot, and last season he averaged 25.3 points
and 8.7 assists at Allegany (Md.) Community College, which
earned him a ticket to Maryland, the latest stop on a hoops
odyssey that has included two high schools, a prep school and
two junior colleges in the last five years. "After all I've been
through, I have no doubts I'm ready for the ACC," says Francis.

He'll get little argument. According to Francis, former Clemson
coach Rick Barnes, who lit out for the Texas job in April,
phoned the junior guard this summer to say he would not have
left if Francis had chosen the Tigers over the Terps. And during
a pickup game at Maryland's North Gym in August, Francis dazzled
several of his new teammates when he outleaped veteran
Sacramento Kings forward Chris Webber to complete an alley-oop

Francis joins the most talented Maryland lineup in more than a
decade, one with justifiable designs on the Final Four. Senior
swingman Laron Profit, the ACC's quickest player, had a
league-best 87 steals last season. Sophomore forward Terence
Morris, who hit 52% of his field goal attempts (including 35%
from beyond the arc) in '97-98, appears primed for a breakout
season. If Francis and the other perimeter players hit their
outside shots, that will open up more elbow room down low for
senior center Obinna Ekezie, who was impressive at the world
championships in Greece, where he played for Nigeria and
received two days of tutoring on post play from his countryman,
Hakeem Olajuwon.

Only the Terps' history of postseason failure gives one
pause--Maryland last advanced past the Sweet 16 in 1975 and has
never been to a Final Four. Profit, however, is determined to
prove the Terps can win big games. As a counselor at Michael
Jordan's basketball camp in Chicago during the summer, he
listened to Jordan tell the story of how he missed five straight
jumpers toward the end of Game 6 of the '98 NBA Finals before
launching the game-winner. Later Profit showed similar
self-assurance during a staff pickup game when he nailed the
winning jumper over Jordan. "Mike exudes confidence, and it
can't help but rub off on you," Profit says. "If our team can
develop that kind of attitude, we have a chance to make history."


COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. McDONOUGH WELL-SCHOOLED A tutorial from Olajuwon this summer elevated Ekezie's game. [Obinna Ekezie in game]



SF [**]Laron Profit 6'5" Sr. 15.8 ppg
PF Terence Morris 6'9" So. 52.3 FG%
C [**]Obinna Ekezie 6'10" Sr. 12.8 ppg
SG Steve Francis 6'3" Jr. 25.3 ppg*
PG [**]Terrell Stokes 6'0" Sr. 4.7 apg

'97-98 record: 21-11 Final rank (coaches' poll): No. 15
[**]Returning starter *ppg as junior college sophomore