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8 Upper

The Underachiever

By Tom Scocca | Posted 2/21/2001

Whatever happens to the University of Maryland men's basketball team in the next six weeks, this season will have been abnormal. This is bad news for coach Gary Williams, who puts great stock in the power of normalcy; like President Harding, he considers its value to be self-evident. He delivers 20 or so wins a year, he makes the NCAAs each March, and none of his players drop dead of a cocaine overdose--what more could anyone ask? And in late January, when the Terps were 14-4 and knocking on the door of the Top 5, it seemed certain that those pretty-good times would keep on rolling.

Then came the cave-in. In a three-week span against conference foes, the Terps went 1-5. They broke the slide with a win Feb. 17 on the road against then-No.15 Wake Forest, but the damage was done. At press time Feb. 20, Maryland's record stood at 16-9 with four games left, three against ranked teams. Twenty wins seems unlikely, an NCAA bid uncertain. And Williams' old, safe standard of achievement is in ruins.

The Terps' undoing was, of course, their Jan. 27 game against Duke. The Blue Devils were ranked second in the country and tied for the Atlantic Coast Conference lead, and Maryland was beating the stuffing out of them. The Terps led 46-37 at halftime, 58-47 with 13:16 to play, and 90-80 with 54 seconds left. What happened next is already hoops legend: the flurry of steals and three-pointers, the smothering Duke defense, the 98-96 overtime loss.

Before the veil of mythology settles completely over the game, it's worth remembering that the Terps deserved to win. They outplayed, outshot, and outhustled Duke. Without a frankly corrupt performance by the officials, the Blue Devils wouldn't have had a chance. The Terps were whistled for 31 fouls to Duke's 21, and the game didn't turn till Steve Blake, ESPN's player of the game, fouled out--or rather, was whistled out by the refs on a series of imperceptible touch fouls. Till then, he had kept Duke star Jason Williams befogged, harassing him into 10 turnovers. With Blake gone, the Terps had no one to protect the ball, and Williams erupted for eight points in 13 seconds.

And Gary Williams, Mr. Passionate, watched his team fall apart with a numb and helpless look on his face. I saw the same look once on the face of a frog, as its hindquarters slowly slid down a snake's gullet. Over the next five games, I kept seeing it--on Williams, on his players, on the fans--as the failure and the ill will grew, till the crowd was booing the team off the court, enraged by a near-comatose performance against ACC cellar-dweller Florida State.

By then, the fans had a right to be angry. Afterward, Williams got on the microphone and sneeringly thanked them for their support over the last seven years--the span during which, as the coach always points out, Maryland has made every NCAA tournament--in which the team "sucked." It was meant as self-pitying sarcasm, but it raised the question Williams has been avoiding for years: What's so great about being consistently second-rate? Maryland has made seven straight tournaments and washed out each time.

"I do know how to coach," Williams told The Washington Post, defensively, in the depths of the slump. But he was wrong. He doesn't know how to coach. And after 11 seasons at Maryland, it finally caught up with him.

Williams' great strength is the ability to recruit waves of talent. He gets players other coaches overlook and springs them on an unsuspecting ACC: Joe Smith, Laron Profit, Obinna Ekezie. Last season he did it again, startling everyone with how good Lonny Baxter, Juan Dixon, and Blake were.

Maryland brought the same team back whole, with another year's experience and a deeper bench, and was ranked fifth in the preseason Associated Press poll. Now they're No. 20 and scrabbling to hold on. They are a sorry 2-6 against ranked teams, both wins coming against Wake. They have had only one minor injury, and no swarms of NBA scouts distracting the players. Williams has simply failed, as usual, to properly develop, prepare, and motivate his players. He has been out-strategized and outhustled. He has been, in short, out-coached.

The Terps' problems have been elementary. They turned the ball over 17 times against Virginia, 18 against Florida State, 23 against Georgia Tech. Their offense at times seemed to consist entirely of ill-advised three-pointers. Whenever they needed to execute a single play, they failed--allowing Duke to score off a full-court pass 1.4 seconds before halftime, letting North Carolina take the lead on a put-back. And, like Lefty Driesell, Williams has no idea how to play for the last shot. In the ACC, where even the worst teams are good enough to keep games close, this is inexcusable. Against Florida State, down a point with the shot clock off, they had ice-cold Terence Morris hoist a three-pointer with 15 seconds left; it clanked, the Seminoles got the rebound, the fans booed.

Williams should have thanked the jeerers sincerely. After a decade of underachievement masquerading as overachievement, Maryland basketball fans are finally demanding something more. The usual script is ruined, but that leaves plenty of unusual things the Terps can do: beat Duke and Virginia, win the ACC tournament, make a run in the NCAAs. Last year, an 18-13 Carolina team got its act together and made the Final Four. Maryland has the talent to do something similar. If the coach can't make it happen, it's time for the coach to go.

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