Sunday, March 15, 2009

Gary Williams Coaches Scrappy Terps Back into the Dance

As Gary Williams and his Terrapins walked off the floor following the embarrassing 93-64 defeat at Clemson on Feb. 17, their aspirations for a second NCAA tournament appearance in five years appeared to have all but vanished.

Williams was facing intense scrutiny regarding his inability to recruit bigger stars and his disintegrating relationship with athletic director Debbie Yow and the university.

The highly inconsistent Greivis Vasquez was yapping at his own fans and struggling to lead the offense.

The struggles figured only to get worse for the 16-9 Terps as they prepared for home battles against powerhouses North Carolina and Duke. The final two nails in the coffin, right?

Perhaps we needed a refresher. Never count out a Williams-coached team.

The season turned on the next Saturday afternoon as Vasquez’s triple-double led Maryland to shock North Carolina in overtime, giving the Terps new life in their quest for an invitation to the “Big Dance.”

Though there would be a few more loops in this undulating season, including a crucial loss to Virginia in the regular season finale followed by two wins in the ACC tournament to put them back in good standing, the sweaty palms and nail biting paid of Sunday afternoon paid off as Maryland learned they would be the No. 10 seed invited to face California in the first round of the NCAA tournament in Kansas City.

For all of the harsh criticism for Williams and the struggles of his program over the past five seasons, the coach never wavered, insisting this was one of his favorite teams in his noted career.

There’s no question Maryland is undersized and lacks the talent to consistently compete with the top teams in the country. Of the Terps’ starting five, only Greivis Vasquez would start for the top programs in the country.

These doubts regarding recruiting will continue to follow Williams unless incoming freshmen James Padgett and Jordan Williams can provide the impact size the team has sorely lacked this season.

But for all of the critics droning about Maryland failing to make the NCAA tournament consistently, Williams found a way to silence them in what might be his best pure-coaching job since arriving at Maryland 20 years ago.

From the unimpressive, yet effective, Dave Neal to the out-of-position Landon Milbourne holding his own against burly opponents, the Terps never conceded failure, even when they appeared done in mid-February.

The scrappy play of this Maryland team is unlikely to move them beyond the first or second round, but Williams once again proved there should be no doubting his ability to get the absolute best out of his players.

This is the point that Williams needs to sell to potential recruits, whether they’re looking to win a national championship, go to the NBA, or both.

If he can get this underdog roster of players to play its way into the NCAA tournament, just think what he can continue to do with more talent.

The fire is still there in the 64-year-old coach to win another national championship for Maryland. He just needs to recruit the horses.

Who knows? Perhaps Williams can channel the past, and the Terps can defeat Cal and upset No.2-seeded Memphis to advance to the Sweet 16.

Certainly an unlikely proposition, but it was equally unlikely when Joe Smith, Johnny Rhodes, and the Terps knocked off Massachusetts in 1994, putting Maryland basketball back on the map after years in the doldrums following the tragic death of Len Bias.

Oh yeah, Maryland just happened to also be a No. 10 seed that year, and John Calipari was the coach of the Minutemen, the same Calipari coaching the Memphis Tigers in a potential second-round matchup.

It would be hyperbole to compare the magnitude of a potential run in this year’s tournament to those past heroics. The recent struggles do not compare to the state of the program when Williams arrived in College Park in 1989.

However, it might just launch the Terrapins back into elite status in the near future if they can capitalize on the recruiting side.

Crazy? Perhaps.

But, as we’ve learned throughout his brilliant career and again this season, never doubt the heart of Gary Williams and his basketball team.

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