Five minutes before Maryland and Clemson went at each other yesterday, Cole Field House was so quiet you could hear Jim Kehoe pinching pennies. The sounds of silence were deafening. Finally, one of the cash customers yelled: Is this a basketball game or a funeral?"
It could well have been a funeral, a time for even the ol' leftfooter to bury the latest collection of players he had worked so hard to coax here. Clearly, much of the crowd was fearing the worst, and many of the players may well have been conscious of the ominous shadows, visible and invisible, that stalked them as they took the court.
The standards by which these and future players will be measured - John Lucas and Mo Howard, Len Elmore, Tom McMillen and even the free-spirited Will Hetzel - were on hand. And the high-school net straighteners, the replacement Lefty Driesell might bring in, were on Terrapin minds if not at courtside.
In the college department Driesell runs, you either make A or fail moving either off the floor or one spot farther down the bench. Yesterday, everyone was acing the course, proving conclusively that uncertainty will be rampant until the season's final shot.
Having lost horribly to a fine team three days earlier, Maryland beat a fine team yesterday. The game-long dreamer against North Carolina, Jo Jo Hunter, was a Walt Frazier play alike yesterday. One ought not to draw conclusions about this team, but just sit back and seee how, or if, it grows.
It is a joy to watch a game like yesterday's, to see a young team pick itself up by the sneaker straps and give what for to its critics, including this one. Even though the Terrapins' postseason future still seems to be the NIT rather than the NCAA playoffs, this was a victory to savor.
At the moment, the Terrapin growing the quickest already is 6-10. That would be Mike Davis, a center who might be the center if this were not just his third year of competitive basketball.
A native Floridian, Davis arrived in College Park this year after intermediate stops at Shaw College in Detroit, where he lived in Dave Bing's house, and Mercer Community College in New Jersey. He did not play high-school ball, having been cut when he tried out for the team in the 11th grade.
"Why go back (to basketball) again?" he said after a 16-point, 10-rebound, five-foul effort against Tree Rollins. "Well, because I got to be 6-8 and then 6-9 and then 6-10. And because my friends kept pushing me to keep trying."
At Mercer and Bing's summer camps, Davis improved spectacularly, to the point where he was involved in perhaps the only recruiting innovation in years, with the consummate, salesman, Driesell.
There is an NCAA rule that limits the number of in-person contacts a coach may make with a prospect, and Driesell and Davis had seen each other all the times the law allows when they wanted just one more talk.
The solution? Driesell met Davis in his home away from home, Bing's house, yet they did not see one another, as the NCAA commanded. They talked by phone, Driesell on the downstairs line and Davis on an upstairs extension.
"He even sent the letter of intent by taxi, just the piece of paper, so as not to violate any rules," Davis added. And Davis has sent message of intent buzzing through the ACC with his back-to-back fine games against Carolina and Clemson.
Against the Tree, the major reason several pro scouts happened by Cole Field House, Davis slipped in an early jumper with a branch in his face, and followed that up with two marvelous tips and a dunk off a pass from Brad Davis.
"I'm gaining back what I had," Mike Davis said, "I feel like my old self again. Against him (Rollins), I try to chest him up, and if he gets the ball I pray and put my hands up."
Prayer or whatever, Rollins missed two of every three shots he tried, although the Maryland zone seemd to line up around his gums a time or two. And all five Tiger starters could muster just 14 points the entire first half.
If the scouts came to watch Rollins, they may one day concentrate totally on Mike Davis if he shows as much improvement this year and next as he has so far in his brief basketball experience.
The spotlight rarely shines directly on Davis, and he was quick to react. About an hour after the game, with reporters almost surrounding him in the dressing room, Davis scanned the crowd and spied Lucas.
"John," he said, "I'm gettin' it all today."