Surviving Sweet 16 no sugar-coated order for Williams

Ncaa Tournament

March 21, 2001|By John Eisenberg

GARY WILLIAMS SAYS he absolutely, positively is uninterested in moving on to coach UNLV for $1 million a year. But he might not want to put that in writing.

If Williams' Terps fall to a Georgetown team they absolutely, positively should beat in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament tomorrow night, the Gary-bashers who love to call for his head will sprint out of hiding and renew their booing as forcefully as ever.

Williams already feels largely unappreciated for what he has done in College Park and often is defensive about his record, so he might want to have an alternative in hand, real or otherwise, if he suddenly decides he has heard enough.

Not that the bashers would be wrong, in this case, to criticize Williams for failing to get another team past the Sweet 16. This is the year for it to happen. Let there be no doubt.

It turns out the third-seeded Terps need only survive a lightweight George III schedule (George Mason, Georgia State, Georgetown) to reach the Elite Eight for the first time, beating teams seeded No. 14, No. 11 and No. 10 in the West Regional. Sorry, March Madness life just doesn't get any more forgiving than that. As paths through the 64-team field go (to borrow from Dickie V), that's cupcake city, baby.

Consider, by contrast, Mississippi, the third seed in the Midwest Regional. It has to beat a No. 14, a No. 6 and a No. 2 to get to the Elite Eight, and the No. 2 is Arizona, a difficult opponent many are picking for the Final Four.

The Terps have gotten the breaks this year, unlike in their prior trips to the Sweet 16 under Williams, when they played such teams as Michigan, Connecticut and Arizona at or near the top of their games and lost convincingly, to the surprise of few.

This year is different. It's the first time under Williams that the Terps are clearly favored to win in this round. They were slightly favored over St. John's two years ago in a matchup of No. 2 and No. 3 seeds, but this is far more definitive.

In other words, the usual excuses won't work if things go wrong again.

True, Georgetown has a 25-7 record and obviously is capable of winning the game. Deep, tall teams give Maryland fits, as Georgia Tech and North Carolina did with centers Alvin Jones and Brendan Haywood. Lonny Baxter and Terence Morris tend to struggle against the big guys, and Georgetown has 7-footer Ruben Boumtje Boumtje.

Still, other than Gonzaga, which competes in a smaller conference, Georgetown has played the softest schedule of the Sweet 16 qualifiers. Not one of the Hoyas' 25 wins came over a team still alive in the tournament.

The Terps should win. The Terps are better. But will they show up? Will they play to their potential? That's the question at the core of this game. Only the Terps can beat the Terps in this matchup, and there are no guarantees.

When they failed badly against St. John's two years ago and UCLA last year, they left Williams vulnerable to criticism that his strong-willed style leaves his players either too tired, too scared or both with the season on the line in March. A valid complaint? It's an easy thing to say, a lot harder to prove.

Either way, such analysis infuriates Williams, who faithfully responds to complaints about his NCAA record as follows: "We've only been to the tournament seven [now eight] times in a row, and to the Sweet 16 four [now five] times. I guess that stinks."

Sarcasm? With emphasis. He feels -- legitimately -- that he has rescued the program from the scrap heap of the Len Bias scandal and Bob Wade's probation and transformed it into one of the nation's most consistent winners, and people shouldn't lose sight of that.

Too many do, no question.

Yet Williams has never won the ACC tournament, never advanced beyond the Sweet 16, never produced the single, defining March moment that all elite programs experience, and some fans -- just as legitimately -- feel it's past time for that to happen.

Both sides have a point, in other words.

The discussion ceases if Maryland beats Georgetown and then knocks off top-seeded Stanford in Saturday's regional final to reach the Final Four for the first time.

Even if the Terps play well and lose to Stanford, any forthcoming criticism of them would lack foundation. That's a good season.

The timing is funny, to say the least. At the end of an up-and-down season in which he has endured the sharpest criticism of his 12-year tenure at Maryland, Williams has by far his best chance to make the deep tournament run that would undermine his critics' various arguments. And then, right in the middle of it, there's a report linking him to the UNLV opening.

The story that started it was a classic of the Internet journalism age, a Web report lacking named sources and misidentifying Williams' representative. Much ado about nothing.

But even though Williams' denials were convincing, make no mistake, he wasn't sorry the story surfaced. It gives him leverage to ask for a raise if he wants, and it's a punch to the gut of the Gary-bashers, the fans and alumni who are tired of him. You know Williams thought this, even if he didn't say it: "If I'm so stupid, why does UNLV want me?"

If he beats Georgetown, he can stop being so defensive. If he beats Georgetown and wins the regional, he can celebrate and gloat, not necessarily in that order.

But if he loses tomorrow night, he'll need to cover his ears. A warm place to go might not sound so bad.

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