Top Terp Tournament: #7 Steve Francis vs. #2 Joe Smith

Seriously, he seemed like he floated in the air forever.

The Top Terp Tournament, where we look at the best players of the Gary Williams era, rolls on with our final match up of the elite 8 – Steve Francis vs. Joe Smith. Both players have a lot in common; both were drafted extremely high in the NBA (Smith #1, Francis #2); both left school early; and both helped Maryland gain a lot of attention nationally because of their excellent play. Talent wise, both players are arguably two of the most talented men to play basketball for Maryland under Gary Williams and you could make an argument that both of these guys had more talent than some players ranked higher on this list. But Juan being the all-time points leader and winning the Natty gave him the edge over Smith, who was only in College Park for two seasons and Francis dropped down to #7 mainly because he was only in College Park for one season.  That’s one of the things that has fascinated me about doing this tournament; learning and seeing how each Maryland fan evaluates players, what they believe is most important in making such evaluations, etc.

With that in mind, I present to you our latest match up…

The #2 Seed: Joe Smith, PF/C, #32 1993-1995

Ben B. did a great write up of Joe Smith in his first round match up, which you can read here, and I’ll be replicating a lot of what he said now, but I really enjoyed his write up and perspective, so if you haven’t read it, I’d highly recommend it.

If you were asked to come up with the most generic name possible, "Joe Smith" would arguably be towards the top of the list; a somewhat common name that represents your average, everyday American. But Joseph Leynard Smith was far from ordinary, despite being a somewhat unknown talent when he stepped foot on Maryland’s campus in 1993. But that quickly changed on November 26, 1993. Maryland was facing #15 Georgetown at USAir Arena. The Terps were coming off a 12-16 season and NCAA sanctions stemming from the Bob Wade era when the squared off with the Hoyas to start the 1993-1994 season. Many thought Georgetown would steamroll the depleted Terps. But Joe Smith had other ideas. The freshman finished with 26 points, 9 rebounds, 1 assist and 3 steals and helped propel Maryland to an 84-83 overtime victory over Georgetown in his first game in a Terp uniform. Maryland was back and Joe Smith, along with a talented freshman from Baltimore named Keith Booth, were leading the charge.

Smith and Maryland capped off that season with a trip to the NCAA tournament where they upset #2 seed and 8th ranked UMass in the 2nd round. Maryland then lost their Sweet 16 match up to Michigan, but Maryland had still made a statement – the Terps were back from the brink of death. Smith finished his freshman year as a first-team All-ACC selection, averaging 19.4 ppg and 10.7 rebounds/game.

In Smith’s sophomore year, Maryland again advanced to the sweet 16 and also finished 12-4 in the ACC. Smith had yet another dominant season, this time finishing with 20.8 ppg and 10.6 rpg. He was named the ACC Player of the Year and also received the Naismith National Player of the Year Award, the only Terp to receive that honor (yup, Jason Williams from Duke received it over Juan in 2002, despite Juan being the ACC Player of the Year and winning the National Championship. Still ticks me off, but I digress...). He was also a first team All-American selection his sophomore year. Finally, Smith had what I believe is one of the single best performance in Maryland basketball history when he dropped 40 points and grabbed 18 boards at Cameron Indoor against Duke, including hitting the game winning shot. All of this resulted in Smith leaving Maryland after his sophomore year for the NBA draft, where he was selected #1 overall. Had Smith returned to Maryland for his junior year, you can’t help but wonder what would have been and what the Terps could have accomplished.

Maryland beats Georgetown in 1993 (via JafarWilliams)

The #7 Seed - #23, Steve Francis, SG, 1998-1999

Ben G. did a great job with his Francis write up in the first round as well, including discussing the impact Francis had on the campus and program after he left and through today. Check it out here if you haven't yet.

I can remember the first time I saw Steve Francis play in person for Maryland. It was at Cole Field House and I was sitting near the north end of the arena, almost behind the Maryland bench. Francis got a pass near the foul line and took off for the rim. It seemed as if he hung in the air forever before slamming the ball home with one hand (In fact, that game and dunk I’m thinking about could have been the one shown at the 40 second mark of the video below).  I also remember Francis’ kind of hop step that he would take before driving around a defender, frequently breaking their ankles in the process. Francis brought an electric atmosphere whenever he stepped on the court. It’s a little hard to describe. Although I never had the chance to experience it, I’m told that Len Bias gave you that feeling when you watched him play, especially in person. People frequently say they thought he would leap out of the gym. Francis only played one year at Maryland, transferring in from Allegany Community College for his junior season and leaving for the NBA after in concluded, despite telling Maryland fans he was"99% sure he would return" for his senior year. His stats for his year at Maryland were: 17 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 4.5 apg and 2.5 spg. He was a 2nd team All-American (which is the main reason his #23 hangs in the rafters) and a first team All-ACC selection for both the regular season and ACC Tournament.

Francis also helped Maryland achieve a #5 ranking in the final AP poll after the Terps fell to St. John’s in the sweet 16. Many believed Francis was the missing piece that could propel Maryland over the hump and get them to advance past the Sweet 16, but that unfortunately wasn’t the case.

Francis gave Maryland’s team swagger. You felt like they could beat anyone with him on the court, and I think that transferred over to the other players. While I don’t fault Francis for leaving after one season, I can’t help but wonder what Maryland could have done the following year had he returned. I still think that despite his early departure, Francis had an impact on Maryland that went beyond wins and losses, in the same way Joe Smith did; he forced people to take Maryland seriously and again helped bring national attention to the Maryland basketball program.

Steve Francis - College Dunk Mix (via liquidgold)

So there you have it. Two extremely talented players who both had a great influence on the Maryland basketball program under Gary Williams. So who you got moving on?

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