It’s a position Gary Williams has found himself in too many times in recent history despite an astonishing coaching career that includes over 600 victories and a national championship in 2002.
The seventh-seeded Terrapins find themselves needing an impressive run in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, beginning with Thursday night’s matchup against North Carolina State, to gain a realistic chance to be invited to the NCAA tournament on Sunday evening.
Last Sunday’s ill-timed loss to Virginia planted the Terps (18-12, 7-9) on the wrong side of the bubble after an earlier win over North Carolina thrust them back into consideration down the stretch. Consecutive losses to Wake Forest and the Cavaliers prevented Maryland from reaching the .500 mark in conference play, a record that would have likely secured an at-large bid.
With the regular season concluded, Williams and the Terps can only hope to capture the magic from past successes to find their way into the Dance.
How ironic it is that Williams brings his team to the Georgia Dome in Atlanta for the conference tournament, the very edifice where Maryland basketball came full circle and reached its pinnacle only seven years ago. Seven long years in the eyes of many of the program’s followers.
The image of Juan Dixon launching the ball toward the Georgia Dome roof in the final second of Maryland’s 64-52 victory over Indiana to win the title continues to grow fainter as the program encounters the likelihood of missing the NCAA tournament for the fourth time in five years.
The criticism for Williams has gained momentum for several years but never as strongly as it has this season. From his rocky relationship with the athletic department to the perceived failure in recruiting high-profile athletes, Williams has been placed under intense pressure to return the program to national prominence.
If he needs to look for inspiration beyond the school’s history at the Georgia Dome, he should look no further than the 2004 ACC tournament. The sixth-seeded Terps entered the Greensboro Coliseum with a 7-9 conference record and work to do in order to earn an NCAA invitation.
The underdog Terps, led by a sizzling John Gilchrist, proceeded to shock Wake Forest, N.C. State, and Duke to win the tournament and earn an automatic bid.
While this year’s team may be hard-pressed to repeat such an improbable feat, especially having to win four games in the since-expanded tournament, two victories would garner strong consideration from the selection committee. Three victories would almost assure an invitation.
What are this team’s chances of putting together a strong run in Atlanta? It starts with Greivis Vasquez.
Though frustratingly inconsistent, Vasquez is more than capable of providing a Gilchrist-like performance to lead the Terps to a few victories over the weekend.
Vasquez’s triple-double in the North Carolina win as well as his 33-point performance in a road win over N.C. State showed how capable the junior guard is of taking over a game. If Vasquez can find a similar rhythm to the one he had in those contests, he can lead the Terps to victory against anyone in the ACC.
When looking back upon the Terps’ 2004 conference tournament championship, Gilchrist was the overwhelming hero, but others such as forwards Jamar Smith and Travis Garrison as well as little-used Mike Grinnon, and his key free throws, provided strong support to upset top-seeded Duke.
The Terps cannot solely rely on Vasquez to carry them to victory. Williams must find another player to step up in the conference tournament, a tall order facing a team that lacks any strong inside presence. Senior Dave Neal has played well recently, but the forward lacks the athleticism to compete against the tougher big men of the conference.
Landon Milbourne has been the most improved player on the team, averaging 12.2 points per game, but has seemingly disappeared down the stretch, bottoming out with two points against Wake Forest in the next-to-last regular season game.
Whether it’s a reemerging Milbourne or another candidate such as Cliff Tucker, who had 22 points in the North Carolina win, the Terps need a supporting cast for Vasquez if they have any visions of playing beyond Thursday or Friday.
Williams must instruct his team to treat the conference tournament opener against N.C. State as though it were the first round of the NCAA tournament. The stakes are just as high, and as an added bonus, Maryland faces a team they beat less than two weeks ago, not a mystery tournament team that you often face in the first round.
If Maryland is able to get by the Wolfpack, they meet Wake Forest on Friday night, a team that bested them by only two points last week. While it would be no easy task, Maryland certainly proved they can compete with the Demon Deacons.
An opportunity is there for Maryland to recapture the NCAA invitation that slipped through its grasp in the disappointing loss to Virginia. Williams thrives in the underdog role, so you can never count his team out, even with the underwhelming talent on the roster.
If the Terps are unable to make any noise, the reality of another disappointing season will face Williams as he begins the offseason and the daunting challenge of boosting recruiting for a program that has seen the shine vanish from its vast success earlier in the decade.
The image of Dixon will only continue to fade, replaced by the blinking question marks facing the coach and his struggling program if they’re unable to recapture some of that magic left behind on the Georgia Dome floor only seven years ago.
Seven long years.