Beating Duke an obsession for Williams

February 03, 1999|By KEN ROSENTHAL

DURHAM, N.C. -- College basketball teams often reflect the personalities of their coaches. As usual, Duke appears poised and determined. As usual, Maryland is flirting with a late-season meltdown.

Another embarrassing loss to Duke tonight, and coach Gary Williams again will face the haunting questions about his ability to hold a team together, his ability to lead Maryland to its first Final Four.

If it's February, the Terps must be reeling. A strong performance tonight would diminish the impact of Sunday's stunning loss at Wake Forest. A victory would amount to a major breakthrough.

But how confident can Maryland be?

What Dean Smith was to Lefty Driesell, Mike Krzyzewski is to Williams. It's no longer a rivalry for Williams, it's an obsession. And the Maryland players can't help but notice.

Williams is 0-8 at Cameron Indoor Stadium, 2-18 overall against Krzyzewski. Sports Illustrated reported last month that those close to Williams say that record "is driving him to distraction." There's certainly no evidence to the contrary.

The Terps have lost their past three games to Duke by 32, 27 and 18 points. Williams cut off media access to his players before the Wake Forest game, in part because he didn't want them fielding questions about you-know-who.

So much for focus -- the Terps lost to the Demon Deacons by 13 points after beating them by 23 on Dec. 3. Such things happen in the ACC, but Williams criticized his seniors after Sunday's loss, saying, "There comes a time when your senior leadership has to stand up and say, `We're going to play hard.' "

Williams backed off that comment yesterday, accepting his share of responsibility. He usually does that, just as he usually keeps his program open to the media. But this is Duke Week, and the coach appears uptight. It would be only natural if his team followed suit.

Duke, meanwhile, is coming off as difficult a three-game stretch as any team will face this season -- at St. John's, home against North Carolina, at North Carolina State.

How did the Blue Devils respond?

By calmly winning all three games.

Krzyzewski has been to seven Final Fours and won two national titles. He starts one senior, one junior and three sophomores. His top bench players are two sophomores and a freshman. Yet, his team seems more mature than Maryland.

"Coach has been through it so many times before, been through it with so many teams. He knows exactly what to do," sophomore center Elton Brand said at Cameron yesterday.

"He put that stretch together on purpose. I don't think any other team in the ACC would have put a stretch together like that. He has his reasons behind it. I guess it's to get us tougher. Hopefully, it worked."

Krzyzewski isn't afraid to look ahead -- he spoke to his team in advance about last week's schedule. He's already politicking for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. His players muse about going 16-0 in the ACC.

Brand presents as big a distraction for Duke as Steve Francis does for Maryland -- he was on the cover of ESPN Magazine, and also might leave for the NBA. Granted, Raleigh-Durham is a smaller media market than Baltimore-Washington. But nothing fazes Krzyzewski, or his team.

The Blue Devils talk big, think big and play big, working toward a higher goal, yet treating each game as its own challenge. The Terps ignored the big picture last week and botched the little. Now, they face a potential crisis.

There's no reason to panic -- even with a loss tonight, Maryland still could enter the NCAA tournament as a No. 2 seed. Another blowout, however, could significantly damage the Terps' confidence. It's not as if they're traditionally strong finishers.

Five years ago, in Joe Smith's first season, they started 12-3, then went 6-9. Four years ago, in Smith's second season, they started 19-4, then went 7-4. Both times, they advanced to the Sweet 16, but no further.

The pattern continued after Smith's departure -- a 12-7 start and 5-6 finish when Keith Booth was a junior, a 17-2 start and 4-9 finish when he was a senior. Last season was an exception. The Terps again reached the Sweet 16.

In 20 seasons as a head coach, that is as far as Williams has gone in the NCAA tournament. Perhaps his teams wear down from pressing so frenetically. Perhaps they grow weary of his intense coaching style. Whatever, his record is impossible to ignore.

In sports, it's never too late to shed a label -- John Elway is the perfect example, and in Williams' own profession, there's Lute Olson. Williams is a very good coach, adept at rebuilding programs and getting to the NCAAs in the nation's toughest conference. But can he take the next step, pose a serious threat to Krzyzewski?

That's the unanswered question.

This is Williams' most talented team at College Park. It still appears capable of reaching the Final Four. But another embarrassing loss to Duke, and all the old questions resurface. Another embarrassing loss to Duke, and you start to wonder if this season will turn out like all the rest.

Pub Date: 2/03/99

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