Terps edging to be asked to NCAAs

March 13, 1994|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Staff Writer

There has been much discussion lately about the University of Maryland's long absence from and anticipated return to the NCAA basketball tournament and about what the Terrapins have encountered in the six years since their last appearance.

That wait should end tonight when the bids are announced for this year's 64-team field. Despite staggering at the end of the regular season and despite losing to Virginia in the opening round of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, Maryland (16-11) probably will get an invitation.

But overlooked in the excitement of the school going back to college basketball's prime-time event has been another, even longer, wait. It has been seven years since Gary Williams last coached in the NCAA tournament. For someone once considered one of the rising stars in his business, it has moved Williams into the shadows.

"When you have a lot of success early, there is a feeling that it's supposed to happen every year," Williams said yesterday. "You assume that because you're coaching in a big conference like the Big East or Big Ten, you're going to be there. I think that if we did get a bid, I'll appreciate it more than I did then."

In his first 12 years as a Division I coach, Williams' teams went to a postseason tournament nine times in a 10-year stretch, the last being Maryland's NIT appearance in 1990. That was Williams' first season at his alma mater, when an 18-13 team about to go on NCAA probation was snubbed by the NCAA tournament selection committee. That was Maryland's last postseason appearance.

But it was his three NCAA tournament appearances at Boston College and Ohio State that helped build Williams' reputation. His 1982-83 Boston College team reached the Sweet 16 before losing, 95-92, to Virginia and Ralph Sampson. Two years later, the Eagles and Michael Adams reached the Final Eight, losing, 63-61, to Memphis State.

It prevented the chance of an all-Big East Final Four and denied the then-39-year-old Williams an opportunity for the sport's biggest spotlight. Williams made one more NCAA tournament appearance the next year at Ohio State. The Buckeyes lost, 82-79, to Georgetown in the second round.

"I'm not sure people remember that [the NCAA appearances]," said Williams, who turned 48 last week. "People forget what you've done. People forget that we won 18 games here [at Maryland] the first year, beat North Carolina and Virginia twice. Unless you're a big fan, you don't remember those things. If we didn't in this year, I think there would have been some questions about why we didn't win."

It happened to one of Williams' friends, former Boston College football coach Jack Bicknell, after the magic of Doug Flutie's miracle pass against Miami wore off. It is happening, to some extent, to Williams' former assistant and successor at Ohio State, Randy Ayers, who after being national coach of the year two seasons ago is starting to feel some heat.

"I don't think in Gary's case not being in the NCAA tournament hurt his reputation, because most people knew what he was going through at Maryland," Ayers said.

Still, Williams knows that it might have happened to him had the Terps, after back-to-back losing seasons brought about by an inability to recruit blue-chip talent during the school's NCAA probation, not made the strides they did this season. It might have happened if two freshmen, Joe Smith and former Dunbar star Keith Booth, didn't turn out to be better than most imagined.

"I think there are a few people who'll start questioning Gary's coaching if they don't make it to the NIT," one influential alum said last summer.

Williams said: "I didn't feel pressure to win. I wanted to be a better basketball team this year. I wanted to start heading in the right direction. If we get to the NCAA tournament this year, it will be a great thing for me personally. It will be a great thing for the school. It would be easy for me to say after we get in that it's not a big deal. But it is a big deal to me."

March has been madness for Williams, but for a different reason. As he saw many of his peers in the ACC as well as other coaching friends going to the NCAA tournament, Williams stayed home.

Williams tried to stay involved by doing commentary for the fledgling Financial News Network, but the company went belly-up because, he said jokingly, "they were paying me too much money." He kept on top of recruiting. He played some golf, his biggest passion outside of coaching.

But it was difficult.

"What I did was try to keep a low profile, just stay by myself," said Williams, who is divorced and has one grown child, Kristin, a schoolteacher outside Columbus. "You lose a little self-respect. It's not a permanent thing. You watch teams in the NCAA tournament that your team has beaten during the regular season.

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