|From the Ashes Once More|
|Written by Pete Sparacino|
by PETE SPARACINO
The 2008-09 College Basketball season has been both tumultuous and redeeming for Maryland Terrapins head coach Gary Williams. Throughout the season, Gary has been heavily scrutinized by local print media and talk radio, highlighted by a sharply critical 3-part series from the Washington Post. Those critics don’t seem to be chirping lately, after Gary led his Terps into the dance and to a first round victory over California.
In case anyone hasn’t noticed, the 2009 Championship showcases two teams that Maryland beat, North Carolina and Michigan St. The Terps throttled UNC in February, 88-85 in an overtime thriller at College Park. Early in the season, Maryland beat Michigan St. handily on a neutral court, 80-62.
The win against Carolina was simply amazing if you compare the talent put on the floor. Carolina has a roster of about 8 NBA players. Think that’s an exaggeration? Hardly. Lawson, Hansbrough, Green, and Ellington are sure-fire NBA draft picks. Up and comers Ed Davis and Deon Thompson will likely get to the next level. And then you figure there are probably two under classmen languishing on the bench minding their time, that will blossom into NBA talent, say Larry Drew II and Will Graves. (Let’s not forget about injured Senior, Marcus Ginyard).
Looking at the current Maryland roster, there might be two. Vazquez is sure to get a look in the NBA, but after that, it would be tough to pick another. Perhaps Freshman Sean Mosley, the 2nd all-time leading High School scorer in the state of Maryland, could fulfill his potential, and get to the next level.
For Maryland to defeat Carolina given the glaring talent deficiency is nothing short of remarkable. While some credit should go to the players for their gutsy effort, Coach Williams performed perhaps his best coaching job. The current Maryland roster more closely resembles one of a mid-major team, than it does a perennial ACC contender. The Terps often employed 3 and 4 guard lineups, and had no player over 6-8. More often than not, the tallest player on the floor was Dave Neal. In spite of this, Maryland out-rebounded 3 out of its last 4 opponents.
No single player epitomizes Gary’s knack to maximize a player’s talents better than Dave Neal. Neal played sparingly his first 3 seasons, scoring a TOTAL OF 99 POINTS (less than 2 points per game). This season, the undersized Neal averaged 24 minutes, 9 points and 4 rebounds playing the center position listed at a generous 6’7”. Neal became sort of a local cult hero with his YMCA one handers, and bone-jarring knockout pick on hated rival Duke and G Nolan Smith.
In spite of his limited athletic prowess, height, and being matched up against some of the giants of the ACC, Neal held his own and occasionally outshined his much heralded counter parts. Against the biggest team in the ACC, Wake Forest, Neal scored a career high 19-points, despite playing against a front-line that had an average height of about 7 feet. Neal proves the point that Gary instills in his team; a person’s ability to play with heart can surpass talent. And when you combine great heart with great talent, you get a champion. The 2001-02 Terps proved that when they cut down the nets for the National title.
Few coaches can prepare a team for a single game better than Gary. Whenever the Terps need a victory most or face a seemingly un-winnable game, Coach Williams is at his best. This season the Terps beat 3 top 10 teams… UNC, Michigan St, and Wake Forest. Over his career, Gary has knocked off more number 1 teams (7), than any other active coach.
Give Gary a week to prepare for an opponent and he’ll kill ya. The Terps have won 9 straight first round NCAA tourney games. If Cinderella is wearing a slipper, she won’t find it against the Terps!
Of course the great wins of this season were offset by disappointing losses to Morgan St., Georgetown, and a 40+ point route to Duke. While these losses were atypical of a top tier program, a roster of this make-up is going to have some low points no matter who is coaching them.
But still, the critics rang loudly this year, calling for Gary’s head. It seems for every tough stretch the Terps go through, the media and so-called fans question if the game has passed Gary by. Let this season’s resurgence be yet another exhibit of why Maryland is lucky to have such a great coach. You would think, for all Gary has done for the basketball program and the University of Maryland in general, he would be walking on rarified air. But the haters persist… Let me give them a history lesson.
Gary has become a victim of his own success. When he arrived on the scene of his alma mater in 1989, the Terps weren’t allowed on TV and were banned from the NCAA tournament as a result of program violations from the Bob Wade coaching regime. Punishment of this sort was a near ‘death penalty’ by college sports standards. In addition, the hangover from the Len Bias tragedy was still lingering. What player would want to stay or even attend Maryland?
Gary convinced star player Walt Williams to stay put for the ’89 season. Under his leadership, the Terps immediately improved to win 19 games after winning just 9 in ’88 under Wade. This legacy would continue to build for the next 19 seasons, culminating with a National Championship in 2002. (Walt Williams became a NBA lottery pick en-route to an 11 year NBA career.)
In his 20 seasons at Maryland, Gary’s teams have accumulated a National Championship, 2 final fours, a Conference championship, an ACC tourney championship and NCAA tournament appearances in 13 of the last 16 seasons. Maryland fans have come to expect greatness from this program, based on this legacy of success and elite performance.
In today’s college basketball landscape, successful seasons are judged by making the dance or not. You want to know how many teams have been to the tourney as much as Maryland has over the last 16 years? Its an impressive list of 14 perennial powers that includes Arizona (16), Kansas (16), Duke (15), Kentucky (15), Texas (15), Michigan State (14), UNC (14), UCLA (14), U-Conn. (13), Illinois (13), Indiana (13), Oklahoma (13), Stanford (13) and Wisconsin (13). Not exactly bad company to be in.
This year, the NIT is littered with schools from power conferences including Kentucky, Stanford, Florida, and Georgetown. Indiana didn’t even make the NIT, having just a handful of scholarship players after the fallout from former coach Kelvin Sampson’s shady recruiting practices. After winning the NCAA championship for 2 consecutive seasons, Florida hasn’t sniffed the NCAA tournament for 2 straight seasons, which isn’t an endeitment of their Coach, but rather a result of the cyclical environment that is College basketball. Kentucky fans couldn’t wait to oust their highly successful Coach Tubby smith. In comes Coach Billy Gillepsie for 2 mediocre seasons and now he’s gone in favor of Coach John Calipari from Memphis.
Given the rich history under Coach Williams, Maryland should have a roster that reflects an ACC power and not a Butler or a Valpo. In the last few years, that hasn’t been the case. Perhaps this is where some of the criticism towards Gary is valid.
The DC,MD, VA area is a mecca of amateur basketball talent. The likes of Michael Beasley, Kevin Durant, and Rudy Gay are just a few of the recent greats to come out of this area. Maryland has got to start landing some of these local studs. But at what price?
It seems these days, in order to land some of the premier recruits, programs have to employ some borderline tactics to get their guy. One of those tactics is to hire the “handler’s” recruit to a position on the coaching staff. Often times, the handler is their former AAU coach.
Reportedly, this is why Maryland lost star big man recruit Gus Gilchrist. Gilchrist’s handler was allegedly seeking a position on the Maryland staff. Coach Williams would not oblige and the handler later landed at South Florida with a healthy six-figure salary. Do you want to guess where Gilchrist transferred to?
At South Florida, the 6’10” Gilchrist went on to average 10 points and 4 rebounds. How much better could Maryland have been with him in the lineup? He could have been the difference between Maryland being an undersized, overachieving team, to one that could threaten to make a deep run in the tourney.
To his credit, Gary runs a clean program. Recently, some major collegiate athletic programs have been under suspicion for improprieties, including Connecticut and Florida St. In years past, the Maryland camp has made some under the breath comments, insinuating that Connecticut has been less than ethical. The bad blood likely stems from the recruitment of Rudy Gay, which Maryland lost the recruiting battle to UConn. Perhaps now, those whispers have merit.
The recent downturn to Maryland recruiting could also be attributed to the Gary Williams coaching tree. In the years following the 2002 title, Coach Williams has lost 6 assistant coaches. Billy Hahn (La Salle), Jimmy Patsos (Loyola), Dave Dickerson (Tulane), and Mike Lonergan (Vermont) all left Coach Williams to become Head Coaches. The other coaches to depart were Matt Kovarik and Michael Adams. Assistants are absolutely key to recruiting, as they do much of the ‘dirty work’ to grease the skids of landing the recruits. No doubt, the departure of these coaches adversely affected the level of the recruits coming to Maryland the past few seasons.
Coach Williams has beefed up his staff with the likes of Baltimore legend and former Terps standout, Keith Booth, as well as with Chuck Driesell, son of famed Terp Coach Lefty Driesell. As these coaches continue to establish themselves in the community, the fruits of their presence should soon yield some local standouts. Already, Coach Booth has been credited as the catalyst for landing Sean Mosley. Surely, more studs will follow.
So Maryland fans, give Gary the respect he has earned. He bleeds Terrapin red. As Gary continues to adjust to the punches thrown at him, the program will soon return to elite staus. Perhaps as soon as next year, we could have a top 15 team, should Vasquez return and if McDonald’s All American Lance Stephenson commits to the Terps. To the Terp critics, be careful what you wish for… I give you Indiana and Kentucky as primary exhibits. We are lucky to have such a great coach and its time we start showing our appreciation.