With no time to relax, UM marches on

March 18, 2004|By MIKE PRESTON

COLLEGE PARK -- A lot of the University of Maryland basketball players seemed startled by the question: Was last week's run to the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship a breakthrough or an aberration?

Oh, how dare you ask that question?

The Terps tell you about a reborn Maryland team. But on the flip side is coach Gary Williams. His team is peaking, but he really doesn't know what to expect as the Terps open the NCAA tournament today against UTEP in Denver.

Williams deserves a lot of credit during this five-game winning streak. But the Terps are still young and unpredictable in a season that has been filled with peaks and valleys. No one knows what kind of energy Maryland will bring to the big dance.

"This past weekend was probably the most incredible three days, as a package, I've ever put together as a basketball coach," Williams said, "but at the same time, that's over now, and we have to focus on the NCAA tournament.

"I don't think you can put it [the ACC tournament] away right away. That's one of those things guys like [Mike] Grinnon will remember the rest of their lives. It's that big. You just don't put it away, that's for sure. But I really believe that when it's time to play Thursday, you can put it away."

That's the confident Williams. After a season of coddling, the players seem to have bought into his program, and the results were evident last weekend. It has taken patience, which Williams usually lacks.

Shortly after returning to Maryland as coach in 1989, Williams was so loud at practices at Cole Field House that then-athletic director Andy Geiger had to request that he tone it down because he was offending joggers in the building.

We've all seen him sweat through custom-designed suits, and the chunks of hair matted to his head after games. He is a whirlwind on the sideline, ripping into assistant coaches or players or anyone close.

But according to players and friends, Williams was Mr. Cool in practices for most of the season, even when the Terps struggled with their field-goal and free-throw shooting.

The intensity was there, but there was more compassion than fiery passion.

"I'm sure he had a tough time staying patient," said Grinnon, a reserve junior forward. "I know he had his moments. But he also set high expectations for us and told us good teams come together at the right moments. We won the [ACC] tournament. Now we're going to see how this thing plays out."

Sophomore shooting guard Chris McCray said: "We were down at one point, really low. But he just kept us working, and the intensity level was the same as if we were 9-0 or 0-0. Coach gave us hope. There was always hope."

Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti is a diehard Terps fan and a close friend of Williams'. He has courtside seats at home games.

"I saw him teach more this year, have more patience and tolerance," Bisciotti said. "Back in that national championship year, the expectations were higher and the players were older. He got after players. This year, he wasn't in their ear so much, but every once in a while he would point to one of those championship banners and say, you guys haven't done a thing yet for one of those."

Williams had to serve several roles this season. Besides coach, he was also senior captain and father on campus to a team that has five freshmen and four sophomores on the roster.

The roles weren't relinquished until later in the regular season when sophomore point guard John Gilchrist and senior forward/center Jamar Smith established themselves as leaders.

"I had to be the one, I had to do the nasty stuff," Williams said.

On the court, Williams had to keep preaching. His trademark has always been pressure defense, and that kept the Terps in games for most of the season.

But the Terps won their last two games of the regular season, including a 70-69 shocker at N.C. State. And then when Maryland beat Virginia, 70-61, in the regular-season finale to practically guarantee an NCAA tournament berth, Williams did a victory dance that played to the emotion of the crowd and his players.

The gorilla the Terps had been dragging around for about a month, the one about possibly being the first team not to make the tournament in 11 years, was finally off their backs.

"I tell all my teams every year that it is important for them to realize the regular season is one, the ACC tournament is two, and if you get to play in the postseason, that's three, and now we're in stage 3," Williams said.

"In October, they had questions whether they were going to be the team that broke the streak, and they have done a great job with that, and maybe now they can handle this, too."

That's the skeptical Williams. The Terps were pressure-free in the ACC tournament. They looked fresh and had fun. Gilchrist was unbelievable, averaging 24 points, 6.3 assists and two turnovers in three tournament games. Smith averaged 19.7 points and eight rebounds in three tournament games.

Smith was active on the inside, and forward Travis Garrison discovered his outside shooting touch.

But if Gilchrist falters, can this team survive offensively? Can Smith remain consistent? Could this be the part of the season where fatigue finally sets in? Also, will the Terps succumb to the pressures of playing in the NCAA tournament?

"You have to keep momentum. You can't relax now because you won the ACC tournament," Williams said. "This isn't the time of the year to relax. It's important to keep this thing going. I think we still have something to prove. There are some people out there that have been saying we don't deserve to be a No. 4 seed. Well, we'll see."

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