The sign outside the Maryland basketball locker room yesterday said, "Free blood pressure test today."
"I'd be afraid to take that test," said Coach Lefty Driesell. "I'd hate to know what mine is right now. Hell, I might break the machine."
If ever a team and its coach have been in suppressed high anxiety, it's Maryland. At practice yesterday at Cole, the Terps were almost completely silent. When assistant John Kochan clapped his hands during drills, the noise made an eerie lonely echo. No players joined him in the applause.
This is a team that is not in a mood to cheer itself.
"We have not played good ball this year," said senior Albert King, "In fact, we can't play too much worse than we are now."
"We keep saying we're going to turn it around," said senior Ernest Graham, "But, man, we should have turned it around a long time ago."
"I hope something happens," said Dutch Morley. "And I hope it happens soon."
The Terps have run out of time, run out of alibis. They've exhausted their fans' patience. Not only their season, but their whole legacy as a team -- an entire era in Maryland basketball -- is teetering on a knife's edge. This marvelous but mysterious team has reached its final identity crisis.
"We're at the point where we can go either way," said senior Greg Manning.
"We're probably one of the most experienced teams in the country (six players with 21 seasons). Our learning experience is over. It's time for us to produce. We can be remembered as the team that was picked by some people to be No. 1 in the whole country and then didn't even make the top 48 in the NCAA tournament. Or we can suck it up, show our pride and prove that we're a great team."
"I know this team can play," says Driesell, with almost defiant confidence. "As long as we don't sell ourselves out by panicking, we can still do ourselves proud. I keep telling people that we're losing by one foul shot here or one turnover there. They think I'm just talking to hear myself. Maybe nobody but me believes it, but I say we're real close to being real good right now."
Every time Driesell says he doesn't know what is wrong with his team, and he says it after almost every game, what he really means is that he isn't absolutely convinced yet that anything is wrong.
"I can just imagine how Lefty feels," says another area coach. "He's got four guys so awesome that, on a given night, they might be able to beat anybody else in th e country playing four on five. When all his big guns are firing, it's history -- nobody's going to beat them, not Virginia, not anybody. How can Lefty bring himself to make changes when he knows that he could turn the corner any day?"
Now is the time to turn that corner. Maryland has its last three consecutive home games in the next 13 days against Clemson, North Carolina and Wake Forest. "This is our last chance to get straightened out," says Manning. "But it might also be the perfect time of year if we do. Everybody on the team is waiting for an explosion. But when is it going to happen?"
Who could possibly know? America offers no more enigmatic team.
Just a year ago, Maryland was praised as the collegiate team that did the most with the least. Now, they are in danger of being remembered as the team that did the least with the most.
Yet the players are identical.
"The three seniors on this team know what it's like to go from Goliath to David back to the Goliath," said Manning. "We've been through everything."
This gang was 24-7 last year, returned its top six players, added three good recruits and was lauded in preseason top 10s. Now, Maryland has lost its last two games (and three of its last five) and has a 15-6 record. Just as indicative, Maryland doesn't have a glamourous victory all season on which to hang its hat. A half-dozen Terrapins wins have been so uninspired that Driesell has seemed almost as galled in victory as in defeat.
"Two years from now, four players from this Maryland team may be playing in the NBA -- King, Williams, Graham and even Manning," says another local college head coach. "It's going to look strange if a team with four future pros can't even make the NCAA tournament."
Maryland is a marvelous mystery, a study in team chemistry that proves that the same mixture can be either explosive or inert depending on extremely subtle conditions.
At the heart of the paradox that allows Maryland to be so good or so disappointing is the fact that almost every player is either out of his natural position or has no natural position. Buck Williams, 6-8, is a great power forward improvising at center. King is a finesse swing man being asked to help with the muscle and hard labor. Graham has no position because at both his best and worst, he seems to play them all simultaneously; he is the only player in the country who can keep both teams in the game at the same time. Manning is a scoring guard who would rather penetrate than shoot outside. The Terrapin point guards just aren't terribly good.
Because the Terps are so swift, they can seem like a whirlwind.
But, because they are so slim, they seldom set a pick and can be intimidated on the boards. "We can be so explosive and demoralizing . . . we've got such exciting players . . . that it makes it twice as hard to understand why we've been able to run so little this year," says Manning.
"We always seem to be playing a half-court offense against a team that has its zone stuffed down inside," says King. "Teams just have a better idea to counter what we do best: run. They'll do anthing to take that away."
Maryland has not countered with any ploy for forcing the fast tempo it loves or for scoring from long range against those hated zones. Ironically, those seemed the very areas that Maryland had strengthened with its two blue chip freshman, swift guard Steve Rivers and 6-foot-6 long range bombardier Pete Holbert.
But, mystery of mysteries, Rivers and Holbert have never been given a chance to prove whether or not they could give the Terps more flexibility, more depth, more manpower to press full court, more freshman exuberance. By contrast, Georgetown has given so much time to its recruits that the Hoya eighth through 11th men played 30 minutes against St. John's on Saturday. Maryland has remained a seven man team.
Now, in its late-season crisis, Maryland has little choice. It's too late to try to change that chemistry, gone from sweet to sour. Maryland, that high pressure team on a precarious edge, has the same pat hand it has held all season. The Terrapins have chosen their cards. Now it's time to play.