Gary's way has its day

Terps: In his 12th year as Maryland's coach, Gary Williams shows that a program short on blue-chippers and long on development can make the Final Four.

Ncaa Tournament

The Final Four

March 29, 2001|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- Are the good times really over for good?

That was the question Maryland basketball fans faced two years ago this week. The Steve Francis show closed after one season at Cole Field House and a sorry effort against St. John's in the Sweet 16. The NBA was also calling Obinna Ekezie and Laron Profit. Fellow senior Terrell Stokes, another three-year starter, was also done, as coach Gary Williams lost six players off his 13-man roster.

What was supposed to become a bare cupboard, however, was replenished, seemingly overnight. Freshmen reserves were transformed into All-Atlantic Coast Conference players. The point guard prospect who visited East Carolina and South Florida provided the direction the Terps previously lacked. Seemingly dubious recruits earned backup spots, and filled out Maryland.

Williams insists he does not feel vindicated by the first Final Four in Maryland's history and his 23 years of college coaching. He also made statements that point to his satisfaction from silencing critics, who, only two weeks ago, questioned his recruiting philosophy and ability to mold a team capable of competing for an NCAA championship. It is a design short on blue-chippers, and long on development.

Duke's first seven players, from Shane Battier to Nate James to Casey Sanders, were McDonald's All-Americans. Maryland has one, and Danny Miller's reserve status points out the political nature of recruiting, from which 17-year-olds get noticed to who gets them.

Dave Odom became the Wake Forest coach in 1989, the same year Williams took over at his alma mater. Both have confronted the decades-long hold that Duke and North Carolina have on the ACC. Odom got Wake Forest to the top of the league with teams that featured Tim Duncan, but never to a Final Four, and Odom appreciates the task of fighting Tobacco Road history, in recruiting and the win column.

"You have to come to grips with who you are," Odom said. "I grew up in eastern North Carolina, and I've been a fan of ACC basketball all my life. The league has always started with North Carolina and Duke. Nearly every other team has had a run at the top. Lefty [Driesell] at Maryland in the early 1970s, N.C. State at the same time. Virginia, Georgia Tech, then us, but North Carolina and Duke have been consistently there since the '60s.

"The ACC gets us in the door with virtually anyone we want to recruit, including McDonald's All-Americans. Then reality sets in. Things are done through the media, in a subtle way. Many recruiting decisions are made by eighth or ninth or 10th-graders, who listen to announcers on TV espouse the virtues of a North Carolina or a Duke."

Arizona, Kentucky and UCLA carry that same cachet with Dick Vitale.

"Where does that leave us?" Odom said. "You have to get players who are of equal or better ability than the McDonald's All-Americans, but maybe not as well known. People out to prove how good they are. People who don't want to use your school as a professional launching pad after a year or two. Guys who have a story. That's the kind of player Gary has lived off of."

The Maryland rotation is an interesting puzzle. It draws heavily on the mid-Atlantic corridor, and on players who were missing something -- either a standardized test score or physical maturity -- when they signed with the Terps.

The two most gifted players on Maryland's roster are senior Terence Morris and freshman Chris Wilcox. Both made Williams and his staff sweat by waiting until the summer before they were to enroll to secure the standardized test score that would make them eligible as freshmen. Morris is a homebody who wanted to stay near his family in Frederick. After a messy transfer before his senior year, Wilcox wanted to get away from North Carolina.

Lonny Baxter needed a year at prep school to qualify to play at Maryland, but he was an afterthought at Hargrave (Va.) Military Academy, as teammate Korleone Young jumped directly to the NBA. Calvert Hall's Juan Dixon was a semester late getting to Maryland because of his SAT struggle, and ended up red-shirting. Baxter was too chubby and Dixon too skinny, but unlike Goldilocks, Williams has given up targeting recruits who are just right.

"It's one thing to recruit a great player," Williams said. "At the same time, developing players is a big part of being a coach, and I take great pride in that. Sometimes that gets overlooked, with all the attention guys get when they're 6-8 as high school sophomores."

Odom and Williams agree that a recruit must be completely sold on a program, and it must want him.

"I'm big on guys who want to play for the University of Maryland," Williams said. "With Lonny Baxter and Juan Dixon, I didn't have to convince them that it's a great place to play. Maybe you don't get a blue-chipper, but by the time he's a junior, maybe he's as good as those marquee guys. If it takes freshmen and sophomores a while [to develop], that's OK, as long as you have seniors and juniors to carry you."

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