Final word on Terps' season not in until UCLA plays

March 23, 2000|By John Eisenberg

The NCAA tournament resumes tonight, with the Maryland Terrapins' role reduced to having their performance assigned a final grade.

If UCLA beats second-seeded Iowa State tonight in the Midwest Regional, the Terps' 35-point loss to the Bruins last weekend won't look quite as bad.

But if UCLA reverts to its erratic ways and gets knocked out tonight, the Terps' crushing loss will get that much uglier.

Either way, Maryland's 11th season under coach Gary Williams will go in the books as an uplifting tale with a disappointing ending -- a familiar story for the Terps under Williams.

Twenty-win seasons, national rankings and NCAA tournament appearances have become the hallmarks of Williams' program, but lower-seeded teams have bounced the Terps out of the NCAAs four times since 1995, and for the past seven years they have been decisively knocked out in games in which they fell behind by 11, 14, 14, 15, 21, 26 and 36 points.

In other words, the program has gotten stuck in a tricky situation, consistently producing teams good enough to promise a lot, but for whatever reason, never good enough to deliver fully.

What does it say about Williams, who turned 55 earlier this month and became a grandfather last year?

It says a lot of things, some positive, some negative. But overall, it says he's doing a solid job.

Is he another Mike Krzyzewski or Rick Pitino, capable of building and sustaining a dynasty? No.

But is he a good coach running an interesting and exciting program? Yes.

And most importantly, can Maryland do better? Probably not.

The disgruntled fans who wouldn't mind a change, having grown tired of watching the Terps' annual NCAA cave-ins, should be aware of the latter. Maryland simply isn't Duke or Kentucky. It's a second-tier national power in a market dominated by pro sports. It isn't going to attract the best of the best coaches or recruits.

If you get rid of Williams, you'd better have Tubby Smith or someone else of that caliber ready to take over. Otherwise, you're gambling with a new coach who isn't any more accomplished than Williams, and might or might not sustain Williams' 20-win pace. That's a low-percentage risk-reward move. A mistake.

And hey, let's face it, as long as Williams keeps winning 20 games and selling out Cole Field House, his job security isn't even an issue. This is college basketball, where the money trail is what matters most. Nine times out of 10, a coach with a healthy, profitable program is going to keep his job, regardless of what happens in March.

Besides, Williams is a good coach. He hasn't averaged 24 wins a season since 1997 by accident. He's a solid recruiter, having signed his share of top 50 prospects, and his teams are almost always prepared to play. (The UCLA debacle being an exception.) As well, many of his players improve on his watch, the ultimate compliment for any coach. Obinna Ekezie was awkward and clueless when he joined the Terps in 1995, but Williams molded him into an NBA draft pick. That happens a lot.

No, he isn't the slickest in-game strategist, seemingly preferring to rely more on preparation than adjustments. And he also obviously needs to rethink his approach to March. There's no shame in losing in the NCAAs -- 63 of 64 teams do it every year -- but getting blasted seven years in a row? How about working on improving the Terps' proficiency against zone defenses, a March staple? That would have helped against UCLA last weekend, not that Maryland had any shot with the way the Bruins played.

But as much as it's fair and justifiable to criticize Williams for never getting past the Sweet 16, be aware that that's holding him to the highest possible standard. Only 23 teams reached the Final Four in the '90s out of more than 300 in Division I. It's a tough thing to do. Many coaches as qualified and respected as Williams haven't done it.

At the same time, all coaching tenures have a beginning, middle and end, and Williams is in the middle of his run at Maryland. There's no end in sight now, but there could come a time when a career of Sweet 16 finishes won't be enough, fairly or not.

Right now, Williams can disdain such talk with the promise of 2000-01 and beyond. He has everyone back if Terence Morris doesn't go pro, and when you add transfer Byron Mouton and a couple of recruits, he should have one of his best teams. Talented. Experienced. Deep. Composed of four-year guys, players who probably won't leave school before their senior seasons. Players you can dig in and build with.

If Williams still hasn't made a long run in the NCAAs when that group leaves in a couple years, the scales of disaffection might finally begin to tip against him. Then again, maybe they won't. Twenty to 25 wins a season is a powerful argument against any criticism.

In any case, the current team has a lot of potential, and to paraphrase another former Maryland coach, Williams can coach, you know. Maybe things could be better, but mostly, they could be a whole lot worse.

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