Maryland's seesaw season doesn't sit well with Williams

February 24, 2005|By David Steele

GARY Williams was responding to some of the comments made by his point guard in the heated aftermath of Maryland's latest ugly loss. But he might as well have been talking about the roller coaster ride his players have taken him on all season.

"Everybody's got to take responsibility, coaches and players," Williams said from his office last night. "At this level, you know the deal. We had to win [Tuesday night], and we didn't."

Maryland had to beat Clemson at home, just as surely as it had to beat Duke at home a week and a half before. You saw the difference. So did Williams, too up close for his tastes. After Clemson shoved the Terps right back onto the NCAA bubble, John Gilchrist did some popping of his own, hinting at distractions, behind-the-scenes turmoil and lack of chemistry.

John is John, and he has his own issues, Williams said, more or less. But he wasn't done.

"Part of going to college is growing up a little bit," he said, speaking somewhat specifically, but it was applicable generally. "Part of being a college student is doing what you're supposed to do. We've had a lot of successes here over the years, 11 straight trips to the NCAAs. We've had some mature teams, teams with senior leadership, that have performed well."

He left that thought at that.

This team does not have senior leadership in the mold of Juan Dixon or Lonny Baxter in the championship season of 2001-02. But, as Williams put it, "we're an experienced team of sophomores and juniors." With the best kind of experience, ACC tournament championship experience, the kind that everyone inside and outside of the program expected to snowball into this season.

It snowballed when Duke was next on the schedule; it was an avalanche too many other times. It's raking Williams' nerves. He thought like the rest of us did after the leap of last March. He recognizes the reality of it now.

"Winning the ACC tournament - that might have been a year early for guys in their progression," he said. "There was no guarantee [it would continue], but you'd figure there would be a natural progression."

In hindsight - with this regular season playing out so much like the end of last year's with players a year older and with a monumental accomplishment on their resumes - that might have been too much to expect. Great as it was, it was just a weekend in Greensboro that didn't sync with the rest of the season.

Or with this one. They miss Jamar Smith, last season's lone senior and the only key player not returning, more than anyone foresaw. They miss D.J. Strawberry tremendously, although everyone predicted that.

But what the Terps seem to miss more than anything is the lesson they should have learned from the big finish of 2004. It wasn't an illusion, but it wasn't a sign from heaven, either. It did, however, indicate what kind of team this is - one that is capable of rising to an occasion, but not to the non-occasions. One that has not been consistent from game to game or from possession to possession. One that proves Maryland can do what it takes to win, but not that it will at any given time.

That speaks to maturity, and toughness, and savvy, being able to bring it every night whether it's Duke or Clemson in the other jerseys. It is, as Williams said, "doing what you're supposed to do." This team looked ready to do that, even if there wasn't a senior anywhere near the main rotation. It wasn't ready, or at least not often enough.

It's not as if college basketball is bursting at the seams with consistent, mature teams, either. Even the Atlantic Coast Conference is lacking in surprising ways; with all the drama of the Terps staying at or above .500, they are still in the top half of the conference because other contenders have been even flightier than they.

But that hardly eases the frustration.

Williams wonders, as any good coach does, if he has done what he's supposed to do. He wonders even after the rare occasion in which he states, in clear terms, that his players let him down, that they didn't come ready to play, that they fooled him. He leaned that way after the Clemson game, and after a couple of others this season. He pointedly refused to single players out, and only spoke about Gilchrist - they've been a stone in each other's shoe all season - in response to a direct reference to him.

Williams might not have realized how much he echoed his football counterpart at the end of his own underachieving season. Ralph Friedgen conquered his white whale, Florida State, last fall, only to see his team barely show up the next two weeks when the lights weren't as bright.

Fridge beat himself up over it. If Williams had the time, he might do the same, but North Carolina comes to town Sunday.

"In my mind," he said without hesitation, "we'll come out ready to play."

He's probably right. In those situations, under those circumstances, Maryland will be ready. It will do what it's supposed to do.

Next week at Virginia Tech might be another story. Or, rather, it will be the story of Maryland's entire season.

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