Rebound is years in the making

Players, coaches worked to get Terps through tough times

`I always stayed strong'

March 31, 2001|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

MINNEAPOLIS - Walt Williams had just finished his sophomore season at the University of Maryland, and the basketball program was crumbling around him.

It was spring 1990, the end of Gary Williams' first season as coach. The team had been hit with NCAA penalties for infractions committed under former coach Bob Wade. Sophomore Jerod Mustaf, the team's leading scorer, had announced his intention to turn pro.

And for several weeks, into that summer, Walt Williams was trying to figure out his future.

Because the Terrapins were on probation, would he transfer to another school where he could play immediately? Or would he stay in College Park, close to his family and friends in Prince George's County? At 19, Williams had no idea the impact his decision would have a decade down the road.

It has helped lead to Maryland's reaching its first Final Four in the program's history. The Terrapins, so often disappointments in their first seven NCAA tournament appearances under Gary Williams, will meet Atlantic Coast Conference rival Duke tonight at 8:12 at the Metrodome. In the other national semifinal game, Michigan State will play Arizona at 5:42 p.m. The winners will play for the national title Monday night.

Of all the players who have passed through College Park in the 12 years since Gary Williams left Ohio State to coach at his alma mater - from Garfield Smith to Joe Smith, from Vince Broadnax to Juan Dixon - none was more important than a player whom Wade had nicknamed "The Wizard."

"At the time, I didn't understand the magnitude of it," Walt Williams said earlier this week from Houston, where he plays for the Rockets in the NBA. "As I get older, I understand the type of contribution I made. It was tough to realize that I would never get to play in the NCAA tournament. That's a player's dream. It's something that 75 to 85 percent of the players in the NBA get to do. But I've never regretted my decision."

It was not a totally selfless decision. Williams never got to play in the NCAA tournament, and he didn't get to play on television as a junior and rarely as a senior. But he broke the single-season school scoring record (26.8 points a game), became an All-American and was picked seventh in the NBA draft.

"What Walt did was keep people coming to Cole Field House," Gary Williams recalled. "He kept some of the good local players interested in the program."

Three of those players - point guard Duane Simpkins, shooting guard Johnny Rhodes and small forward Exree Hipp - became the core of Maryland's first big recruiting class under Gary Williams and eventually started together on Williams' first NCAA tournament team at Maryland.

Down in Norfolk, Va., a skinny center named Joe Smith paid so much attention to what Walt Williams was doing that he wore his socks all the way up to the knees. There was a power forward named Keith Booth watching, too, at Dunbar High School in East Baltimore.

They became the starting lineup in the fall of 1993, and they had their coming-out party that November against nationally ranked Georgetown at the Capital Center. Simpkins scored the winning basket in overtime, and Smith's performance in outplaying Othella Harrington brought more attention to him than to any Maryland player since the late Len Bias.

Climbing out

After an up-and-down season, the Terrapins were rewarded with their first NCAA tournament bid since 1988 and beat Massachusetts to reach the Sweet 16, where they lost to Michigan. Yet the road to get that far had been torturous for a program once considered among the best in the country.

There were more than a few moments early in Gary Williams' career at Maryland when neither he nor anyone else thought the Terrapins would climb out of what had become an abyss.

"There were times when we looked at each other and said, `What did we get ourselves into?' " said assistant coach Billy Hahn, who had joined Williams shortly after he was hired in the spring of 1989.

Said Kevin McLinton, who was recruited by Wade but played his career for Williams, "I think people around [College Park] heard what went on, but I don't think anybody can truly understand what we went through."

It was particularly difficult toward the end of the first season. The Terrapins had managed to stay competitive with a lineup that featured Walt Williams, Mustaf and Tony Massenburg. But the storm clouds were gathering, despite athletic director Lew Perkins' telling Gary Williams that Maryland would get a slap on the wrist from the NCAA.

"The slap," Hahn said, "became a punch."

Williams had to spend the next few months keeping up a brave front. The team Williams had left at Ohio State was ranked No. 1 in the country. Players who had told Williams they would come to Maryland - such as Randolph Childress - wound up at other schools.

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