As era ends for Terps, hope dawns for new one

Ncaa Tournament

March 30, 2003|By LAURA VECSEY

SAN ANTONIO - No question Gary Williams had a right to choke up in the wake of the Terps' ouster from the NCAA tournament. No question the end of this Maryland basketball era is bittersweet.

All those things that happened during the last four years? Williams will never be the same. He's been saying that since last April 1, when the national title transformed him and - more importantly - his program.

But in-between the desire to ride high this season and sustain that championship glow was something just as important to the continued success in College Park: The coach likes to teach as much as he likes to win.

FOR THE RECORD - The spelling of Lonny Baxter has been corrected for the electronic database. See microfilm for original story.

On this topic, Williams has proved himself credible.

We all love the stories about how much Williams will verbally undress his players or how hard he'll ride them. But there were many instances this season when Williams showed genuine satisfaction in the chance he got to teach this year's team.

"We got to take kids aside, work on things, get it right," Williams said about the hardwood tutorials with freshmen like Nik Caner-Medley, John Gilchrist, Jamar Smith, Chris McCray and Travis Garrison.

It's what you live for if you're in the game. It's what you have to live for, because national championships are hard to come by.

So here we sit, in an unusual place considering how far Maryland went in the 2001 and 2002 NCAA tournaments.

No. 1 Texas lives, so the Longhorns don't have to think about anything except their next NCAA tournament game against Michigan State. The Longhorns aren't concerned right now about whether the Naismith Player of the Year T.J. Ford - and he deserves it for the way he controls a basketball game - is coming or going.

So, too, does No. 1 Oklahoma live as a member of the Elite Eight, which means coach Kelvin Sampson can roll with point guard Hollis Price and the rest of this year's top-seeded Sooners crew.

No one worries about Arizona or Kentucky, the other No. 1 seeds in this year's big dance. Win, lose or draw in these late rounds, these pair of 'Cats get the pick of the litter when it comes to recruits.

Meanwhile, the defending champs are done. They've taken their final measure up against the rest of the field and found - after a nice run and after a final, scrappy, off-the-mat comeback attempt in their Sweet 16 loss to the Spartans - it's time for the Terps to give up the crown.

So questions, please:

Who's going to replace Steve Blake, the slip of a kid who reported to Maryland (his third choice) all those years ago, then stayed and played so well?

Same for seniors like Drew Nicholas, Calvin McCall and Tahj Holden.

All those games, all those wins, so many NCAA tournament appearances: It won't be the same without them.

But isn't that the point?A strange thing happened somewhere between Friday's down-to-the-wire scramble and yesterday's end-of-the-rainbow dawn of reckoning. A scan down the list of who's coming to College Park sparked a sense of anticipation, renewal.

Will Bowers, the 7-foot center from Archbishop Spalding High School, is on his way, giving Maryland a local product with size and passion. It never hurts when a kid calls himself a lifelong Terrapins fan.

Then there's Mike Jones, the 6-5 guard out of Dorchester, Mass., by way of Thayer Academy. Jones recently shared the spotlight with LeBron James in a McDonald's All-American game. This is the caliber of player Williams can get these days. The national championship has already been very good to the Terps, making them hot among the top guns of the high school ranks.

The list gets more flavorful.

Like Strawberry, as in D.J., short for Darryl Strawberry Jr., whose father was one of the most riveting young sluggers in baseball. The 6-4 guard has honed his skills at Mater Dei High in Santa Ana, Calif., and is widely considered to be one of the top 100 recruits for his athletic ability and AAU experience - with room to grow.

Next we get a native of Conkary, Guinea, whose footwork comes courtesy of a childhood playing soccer.

Hassan Fofana is a highly touted 6-10 forward/center out of Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia, the same school that brought Maryland Lonny Baxter and Andre Collins. Fofana averaged 15 rebounds and 15 points during his junior and sophomore seasons at Holy Names in Massachusetts.

And No. 5 among the Terps' newcomers is Ekene Ibenkwe, whose parents are from Nigeria and whose brother, Onye, is already with Eddie Sutton at Oklahoma State. Ekene is a 6-9 forward who averaged 19.7 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks a game at Carson High in California.

These five freshmen will signal a genuine shift at Maryland. The title team is essentially all gone, and the void is filled with the other kind of player Williams wants on board as much as Blake, Holden, Nicholas, McCall, Baxter, Juan Dixon, Chris Wilcox and Byron Mouton.

That would be kids with upside, with open ears and a belief that at Maryland, the coach is going to teach you how to play and win.

With Williams, at Maryland, with the players he's getting in the wake of all that happened, this is an interesting proposition.

Goodbye, March Madness.

When's Midnight Madness?

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