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8 Upper

Nowhere to Hide

By Tom Scocca | Posted 3/22/2000

I guess Gary Williams can shut up about all those Sweet 16s now. That was always the University of Maryland men's basketball coach's trump card, no matter how badly his team tanked in the tournament, no matter how hopelessly it had just gotten whipped by Duke or Wake Forest in midseason: This program had been to four NCAA regional semifinals in the last six years. No matter how ugly a situation might have looked to the untrained eye, the big picture for his Terrapins was still pretty darn good.

No more. Now Maryland has failed to make the Sweet 16 in three of the last five years. With their 105-70 second-round pulping at the hands of UCLA March 18, the Terps have officially re-enrolled in the NCAA tournament's Bitter 16 -- or more aptly, given their failure to even show up against the Bruins, the Lower 48, the grab bag of first-weekend failures. This year's Terps were Pepperdine without the pluck or the Afros; they were Samford, Butler, Creighton. Even Mid-American Conference champion Ball State, UCLA's first-round victim, came off better than Maryland.

In a weekend during which top seeds and perennial powers fell thick and fast, it was hard to imagine one defeat standing out. With Stanford, Arizona, Ohio State, Temple, St. John's, Cincinnati, and Connecticut all in the losers' column, the mere fact of Maryland's elimination shouldn't have been news. But even in this orgy of comeuppance and humiliation, the UCLA game was in a class by itself. The Bruins brutalized the Terps, running past them, jumping over them, throwing down alley-oops like one of those halftime trampoline acts.

It was so bad it literally gave me nightmares. This is true. I do not, as a rule, identify with the athletes I watch, but I went to bed that Saturday night and dreamed I had been put into the game. Baby-blue uniforms loomed like redwoods. Lonny Baxter -- a tiny, frightened-looking Lonny Baxter, no more than 5 feet tall -- passed me the ball. I tried to shoot it, but it was soft and heavy, like it was filled with sand, and it just thudded at my feet.

Unlike Baxter or Williams, though, I had the luxury of waking up. The actual Terps just kept on getting pounded. Williams' partisans, if there are any still around, can hope that UCLA rolls on to a national title and turns out to have been an underseeded superteam. But that still won't be enough. Maryland could have been playing the Los Angeles Lakers and it wouldn't excuse the way they got whipped.

All sorts of dark lessons are being drawn from the disaster. One is that the Terps' failure, after such a strong performance in conference play, shows that the Atlantic Coast Conference is now an inferior league. But UCLA's conference isn't doing any better. Three of the Pac-10's four entries got dumped over the weekend, including conference champion Stanford, which lost to ACC also-ran North Carolina. Nor does Maryland's collapse illustrate the sudden weakness of major-conference basketball in general. For all the noise about the rising power of second- and third-tier conferences -- and for all the carnage among name-brand schools -- 14 of the 16 remaining schools come from the Big East, the Big 10, the Southeastern Conference, the ACC, the Big 12, or the Pac-10. This is hardly a revolution.

No, the only thing we learned from Maryland's performance is that -- stop the presses! -- at crunch time Maryland stinks. Williams can't win in the tournament. His ineptness is strange and singular in its thoroughness; all the losses around him just make it more painfully clear. Bobby Knight and Indiana choked again, yes. Connecticut's Jim Calhoun and Arizona's Lute Olsen washed out early, again. These coaches have failed over and over, in embarrassing fashion. But even these idiots, these certifiable flops, have won national titles. Not Williams. Not ever. Not even close.

The Terps' humiliation was so savagely one-sided, it recalled another tournament game, 10 years ago, when a promising young Duke team met Nevada-Las Vegas in the 1990 national final. UNLV overwhelmed Duke's freshman point guard, Bobby Hurley, en route to a 103-73 rout. One year later, with Hurley in firm command, Duke avenged itself on the Runnin' Rebels and won the first of its back-to-back national titles.

The parallel between Hurley's collapse and that of Terps freshman Steve Blake is hard to ignore. But there are important differences between Duke's situation and Maryland's. Duke's loss came in the title game; Maryland collapsed in the first weekend. The main difference, though, is that Duke's comeback was guided by Mike Krzyzewski. Maryland's, if there is one, will be directed by Williams. And Williams has already laid the groundwork for screwing up next year.

On paper, the omens are promising. If Terence Morris stays in school, Maryland will bring back the same team, but older and wiser, with more depth at power forward and point guard. They'll also have transferred shooting guard Byron Mouton, who led his old school, Tulane, in scoring.

The Terps' leading scorer this year, of course, was shooting guard Juan Dixon. If the situation sounds familiar, it's because Williams did the same thing two years ago with Laron Profit and Steve Francis -- sending two guys out to play the same position, compatibility be damned. That season, unable to develop a consistent offense, the Terps lost in the Sweet 16. Maybe they'll lose in that round next year too. But lose they will.

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