Saturday, February 21, 2009

Maryland Gives Glimpse into Past in Upset Win

The dark cloud suddenly lifted as an ocean of red poured onto the floor of the Comcast Center, and Maryland was king of the college basketball world again, if only for one afternoon.

While much work remains in regards to their NCAA tournament hopes, the Terrapins enjoyed a return to their glory days as unranked Maryland shocked No. 3 North Carolina 88-85 in overtime on Saturday.

If you squinted hard enough at Greivis Vasquez, on his way to a triple-double, you could almost see Juan Dixon, or Steve Blake, or even John Gilchrist, as he carved up the Tar Heels’ defense all afternoon. In fact, Vasquez’s epic performance may have topped them all, as he led the team in points (35), assists (10), rebounds (11), blocks (3), and steals (2).

There was Cliff Tucker, draining five three-pointers in the contest, just as Dixon or Drew Nicholas used to do.

The questions about their lack of size will remain -- nobody on the court resembled Lonny Baxter or Chris Wilcox no matter how hard you looked -- as the Terrapins surrendered 22 offensive rebounds, but they still found a way.

And finally, there was coach Gary Williams, pumping his fists and storming the sidelines as he has for the past 20 years, coaching up a less-talented team on their way to victory.

Williams once again reminded us how great a coach he really is and how effective his teams can be, even against the toughest of opponents.

For one afternoon, the doubts disappeared, and everything suddenly felt right again in College Park.

The next few weeks will tell us just how much this win means to Maryland’s postseason hopes, but for Williams, the exposure of a nationally-televised upset may help to jumpstart his maligned recruiting efforts.

Yes, it was only a season ago that Maryland upset then-top-ranked North Carolina on the road. And true, the Terrapins have managed to score a major upset nearly every season in their recent dry spell of missing three out of four NCAA tournaments, but the criticism surrounding Williams and the program this season is unlike the school has faced since receiving NCAA sanctions in the early 1990s.

The image of Juan Dixon cutting down the nets in the Georgia Dome continues to grow fainter while the sting of embarrassing losses such as American last season and Morgan State this year has soiled Williams’ once-untouchable status.

Williams has defended his performance, citing just how far he has taken the program since he rescued it from the ashes of the Len Bias tragedy and the Bob Wade era, but it is difficult to overlook the lack of talent currently enrolled.

Shortly after he arrived, Williams was able to recruit a little-known forward named Joe Smith and Baltimore native Keith Booth to return the program to prominence, so he has to hope Saturday’s upset can help to spark another recruiting blitz.

While critics will continue to point to the players Williams fails to recruit, perhaps it is the talented, yet inconsistent, Vasquez who can help to right the direction of the program. The Venezuela native has continued to support his coach publicly despite rumblings about Williams’ dealings with recruits and other players.

“Every Maryland fan should be grateful because that man right there can coach,” Vasquez said to reporters following the game.

Perhaps Vasquez’s words are based purely on the emotion of an improbable win, but Maryland supporters should remember that the familiar joy experienced on Saturday is only familiar because of the man who continues to storm the Terrapins’ sideline, 20 years after raising the program from its lowest point.

Williams deserves an opportunity to do what he does best: rebuild.

As bleak as it has been at Maryland for much of the season, Williams is still coaching with that fiery persona and chip on his shoulder. If he can bring that same passion to his recruiting efforts, Maryland may regain its place in ACC and national prominence.

Whether Williams can reinvent himself as a recruiter remains to be seen, but for one afternoon at least, it felt like Maryland was again one of the elite programs in the country. You could almost see Dixon hitting the baseline jumper or Smith delivering the thunderous dunk, as the memories of past success came flooding back. And now, Vasquez can add his thrilling performance to those special images of past Terrapins.

Regardless of what Saturday’s win means for the immediate future of Maryland basketball, whether it’s the catalyst for a late tournament run or only an aberration in a disappointing season, Williams hopes it’s not only a flashback to past glory but also the beginning of a turnaround for the program he hopes to rebuild again.

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