COLLEGE PARK -- The long trial has begun, and we already know the verdict. Maryland was declared guilty before the season even began. The Terps, as everyone knows, are on probation and off TV and sentenced to a winter of discontent.
Now, the only question is whether Gary Williams, the coach, can live through it. Those who know him say it's not exactly a sure thing.
Last night, Maryland was playing a team called the Anteaters, which should have suggested a certain kind of game. Under normal circumstances -- or as normal as they get at Maryland -- this would have been a tuneup for the Terps, a December victory to tuck away for the NCAA tournament committee to consider in March. But there will be no tournament for Maryland next spring.
Instead, the Terps were coming off a three-game losing streak, a situation that may seem familiar later on. They should have won at least one of those games and had a chance at all three. In another year, Williams would have been ranting and raving on the sidelines, except when he was raving and ranting. He's the coach who lets you see him sweat, and he lets you see him make his players sweat, too. To put it nicely, he can be Bob Knight in a suit.
But he wasn't last night. He was, well, almost nurturing. He was clapping, patting guys on the back. Next, you figure he'll pass out gold stars.
"Each team is different," he would say after the game. "As a coach, hopefully I can give the guys what they need."
This one is fragile. This one is going to get hurt. This one is going to be plagued by self-doubt, ridiculed and, well, beaten. This is a team that needs a boost.
Williams didn't deserve this situation -- as he serves out a three-year probation not of his making -- but it's the one he must face up to. It's no good to think of the team that might have been -- one with Jerrod Mustaf, Teyon McCoy, a few freshmen of promise -- but only of the team that's on the floor.
The one on the floor plays hard, as all Williams teams do. Williams tells his players if they play with heart and desire and floor burns, good things can happen. He tells them not to let anyone else limit their expectations.
Against Cal-Irvine, a team that won five games last season, as if to earn the name Anteaters, effort was enough. Defensive pressure and a career night by Cedric Lewis gave Maryland its third win of the season. Remember each win. Each one counts.
"There aren't too many games left," Williams would say, "where you'd call us overwhelming favorites."
That's what makes it tough. The losses will mount, and yet, the season goes on.
"I have to go into each game with the attitude that somehow, some way, we can win it," Williams said. "If we don't, I have to go to practice thinking we can win the next one.
"That's what they expect of me. I have to be the leader of this team. I have to help them keep their confidence in themselves, let them know that I have confidence in them."
The Terps needed confidence last night. Against an overmatched team, they fell behind early and then blew a big lead late. Williams went a little crazy on the sidelines, but only a little.
"I have a tendency to be negative," he said. "I have to try to be patient. Even when I yell at them, I tell them that they're not going to be perfect. We play a pressure game, and so we're going to make some mistakes. But that's OK as long as we're aggressive. We stayed aggressive tonight."
It worked against a team called Anteaters. In the ACC, it will be different, which is to say harder. It's a lot to ask of Maryland to try to stay competitive. On the cover of the press guide, there's a picture of Walt Williams as a wizard. He's a fine player, but not quite magical.
"Yeah, a wizard," said Gary Williams, smiling, "he averaged 12 points last year as a sophomore. He's improving, and he'll get better."
Cedric Lewis, a fine shot-blocker, is being asked to step up as a big-league center. Matt Roe, a fine shooter, is having trouble getting his shot because the Terps have so little inside scoring. In most games, they'll be small, slow and outmanned. Players like Kevin McLinton and Matt Downing are getting important minutes, if only because they possess some of the athleticism the team is missing. Williams may be an excellent coach, but if the Terps win more than two games in the conference, it would be a small miracle.
The idea is to sell the players on getting better, win or lose, and, without saying so, try to add up some moral victories. The Terps got a big one Monday when the NCAA decided not to punish them further for the minor infraction of assistant coaches watching preseason practice. Another penalty might have sent Williams over the edge. He's had to deal with plenty in this past year. Now, he has to handle what will be the longest season of his life.
"We can't get down," he said. "That's the important thing . . . and you don't let people tell you what you can't do."
The words come easily after a win. The real challenge will be trying to hold fast to them.