COLLEGE PARK -- You are not going to believe this. You are going to think this is absolutely insane. Sheer madness. Tomfoolery. But it is not. It is true. As he begins his second season as the basketball coach at Maryland, Gary Williams is in a position for which many coaches long.
No, the facts are no different than you remember them. Williams' team is on NCAA probation, prevented from playing on live television, denied access to the postseason tournaments, stripped of four starters from last year. It is the coach's hell. And it is perfect. Yes. As perfect as the ball is round.
There is nothing to lose. Nothing is expected. The players' minds are clear. There are no distractions. No game has an ulterior significance. There is no reason to look ahead. No reason to overlook any game. The only thing that matters is the game at hand. The only inspirations the players can enjoy are the things usually found printed on signs in locker rooms. You play to reach your potential. You play not to quit. You play to hold your head high.
It is the height of irony, but true: Once a college basketball team sins to the degree that it gets hit with probation, it automatically is reduced to the most honest, elemental emotion, to playing sport for the purest of reasons. You play because you enjoy it. What coach wouldn't love to find himself smack in the middle of that?
"It's interesting," Williams said last night after the Terps opened their season with a 93-69 blowout of Towson State at Cole Field House. "This is the first time I have been in this position [on probation], so I didn't really know what to expect. There are less distractions, no question. And I find I'm doing more coaching. I do love that. Hey, I'm a coach. Give me a floor and practice to run, and I'm happy."
Don't misunderstand. Williams would trade a silo of three-pointers for the chance to play in the NCAAs. But there are trade-offs. He doesn't have to question his players' heart. How many college coaches can say that? Williams' players are at Maryland because they don't mind rough going. He knows that going in. No one made them show up. No one forced them to endure this. They are here because they want to be.
"And they've been ready to play from day one," Williams said. "It really starts there. You have to find motivation. We're just playing to play. You have to have a lot of pride. These players didn't have anything to do with [being on probation]. We've talked a lot about life not necessarily being fair. But what do you do? Do you quit? Or do you go on and try to make it as good a situation as possible?"
The Terps made it plenty good last night, running away from Towson with a 24-1 run in the first half. They pressed, ran hard and played tough defense, showing none of the sluggishness that often set in last year against inferior teams. (See: Coppin State, Boston University.) "I was very happy with the way we came out," Williams said. No distractions.
Whether it will be enough to make a game of it at Chapel Hill in February is another question entirely. The Terps are a consensus pick for last in the ACC, and with reason. They have a huge hole in the frontcourt, offensively. But they can run, shoot and handle the ball, which is half the college game, and here's a hunch: They are not always going to get pushed around. Sometimes, yes. But not always.
"If we can play 40 minutes like we played the first 20 tonight, we're going to have a chance to win some games," Williams said. "There are going to be some games where it is a struggle, no question about that. But my goal is for this team to be known as one that shows up every night to play hard. If that happens, I think some things can take place here that no one expects."
In the locker room, senior guard Matt Roe was trying to explain. "There is a positive and negative side to just about any situation," he said. "We don't have the NCAAs to play for. But we have pride. A lot of it. We didn't have to be here, and we are. And we see ourselves as a starting point for this program. We can make a statement. We can play every game hard, and people will see that that's what happens here regardless of the circumstances."
Simple goals. Clear heads. They are the ACC's "Not Ready for Prime Time Players," the tape-delay All-Stars. You have to drive down and buy a ticket if you want to see them live. You would think you'd find the coach with his head buried in the bleachers, waiting it out until the sanctions go away and life starts all over again. But it's funny. You drive down to take a look, and the coach is up pumping on the sidelines, as always. His team is running. There is still life.
"I guess it gets down to what you really want as a coach, the things that you'll remember when it's all over," Williams said. "For me, all I ever want from any team is to overachieve, accomplish more than you think is possible. It doesn't matter what the circumstances are. If you're satisfied that your team has done absolutely as well as possible, you're content. It can happen this year. Hey, I like this team."