It used to be that the University of Maryland basketball team shuffled its starting lineup for lack of a better answer. This time, it might be that Tom (Speedy) Jones is playing too well to stay on the bench.
Jones has scored in double figures in five of his last seven games, and Coach Lefty Driesell said Monday the 6-foot-6 reserve could start both of Maryland's final Atlantic Coast Conference games this week. Jones probably will start against Wake Forest tonight at 8 o'clock at the Greensboro Coliseum and definitely will start against Virginia Saturday afternoon at Cole Field House in Maryland's final regular-season game. That would be in keeping with Driesell's policy of starting seniors in their last home game.
"He's playing awfully well," Driesell said. "He'll definitely get more time either way. I think he's definitely one of the reasons we're doing as well as we are."
Used primarily as a reserve, Jones has averaged 7.5 points and 4.5 rebounds per game, respectable but not awe-inspiring figures. Yet, he has scored 80 points and grabbed 42 rebounds in the last seven games, including 16 points and seven rebounds in Maryland's 77-70 loss Saturday to Georgia Tech. Coincidentally, the Terrapins (15-12 overall, 4-8 in ACC) have won four of the last six, including a 67-66 upset of North Carolina State and last Thursday's 77-72 upset of then-No. 1 North Carolina.
One of Maryland's more retiring players, Jones has been a steady player since he transferred from Allegany Community College in Cumberland, Md., two years ago. He averaged 7.3 points last season with only occasional double-figure performances, and the trend continued this season until it struck him that he didn't have many games left to make his mark at Maryland.
"I'm feeling more comfortable," Jones said. "I realized that it's the last few games of my senior season, and I've got to start doing something."
Should Jones start, it would mean moving junior center Terry Long to first off the bench, since there is no room at forward with Derrick Lewis and Len Bias. That would put Lewis in the middle defensively, but the Terrapins are used to that. Lewis played in the middle last year and routinely moves there when Jones comes off the bench.
If Jones is to become a regular, which seems likely, today's game against Wake Forest would seem an ideal opportunity to get Maryland in the flow with him at forward. The Demon Deacons (7-19, 0-13) are still seeking their first conference victory and would seem to be no match for Maryland's front line, although point guard Tyrone Bogues (11.2 ppg) is a dangerous playmaker.
Driesell, however, may be loath to make yet another lineup change, particularly since Maryland is playing so well. The Terrapins have undergone 11 this season -- one following the one-game suspension of three players -- and Driesell has said the changes have hurt Maryland's continuity.
Jones also may be a better player off the bench, and Maryland would not want to fool with that chemistry with a potential NCAA tournament bid in the balance this week. The Terrapins improved their chances immeasurably with the upset of North Carolina, but they probably need two more victories to be reasonably certain of an invitation.
"I've never been one to say I don't want to start," Jones said. "But we do seem to play better with me coming off the bench."
One reason to keep Jones on the bench is that he adds flexibility to Maryland's front line. He has been a dependable backup for Bias and Lewis, meaning they no longer need to play a full 40 minutes.
But having Jones, a Bias-like leaper, in the starting lineup also gives the Terrapins a rebounding advantage they have needed on occasion without a true center. Against teams with height advantages, particularly North Carolina and Georgia Tech, Jones' presence has meant the Terrapins could more then hold their own on the boards: they actually outrebounded the Yellow Jackets by 30-17, Jones getting six.
It also takes the heat off Bias, who customarily faced gang-up defenses earlier this year. While opponents are concentrating on Bias, they have tended to let Jones go unnoticed, which previously was not a bad strategy. But Jones, who happens to possess a neat jumper, has recently responded by being more aggressive in looking for shots. Conversely, that has tended to free up Bias, who had 35 points against North Carolina and 30 against Georgia Tech.
" Jones just comes out and gets a quiet 10 or 12 points that you don't notice until the game is over," Gatlin said. "Everyone is looking at Len, and he sneaks in and gets the baskets. It helps Len, it helps everyone."
North Carolina did not respond well to the Maryland upset, losing to North Carolina State on Sunday without Steve Hale, who suffered a punctured lung against the Terrapins. The Tar Heels (25-3, 9-3) face another difficult opponent when they play host to Virginia tonight at the Smith Student Activities Center (8:30). The Cavaliers (18-7, 7-5) handed the Tar Heels their first loss of the season, 86-73, in Charlottesville.
In another important local game, Georgetown seeks to break a three-game Big East losing streak when it meets Boston College at Capital Centre (8 p.m.). The Hoyas (20-6, 9-5) had not lost three straight conference games since the 1982-83 season, but it seems unlikely they will lose a fourth against the struggling Eagles (13-12, 4-10)