COLLEGE PARK -- When he climbed a ladder and cut down the net at the Georgia Dome in celebration of Maryland's first national championship, Terrapins basketball coach Gary Williams knew at that very moment that the expectations of his program were forever altered.
How could things get any better than they were on that April 2002 night, when the Terps upended Indiana and claimed their spot on top of the college basketball hierarchy?
But Williams didn't expect this -- not so soon, at least.
As North Carolina and Duke, teams Williams had in mind when he began shaping his own program in College Park, are preparing to take their No. 1 seedings into the NCAA tournament, the Terps (16-12) yesterday were readying for tonight's National Invitation Tournament first-round game against Oral Roberts.
It is the first time since the 1992-93 season that the Terps are not in the NCAAs, and if the players had forgotten that fact, Williams gave them a not-so subtle reminder when he summoned them together after practice Monday to look up at the banners at Comcast Center.
"People can think whatever they want to think," Williams said. "I know we're one of five teams to go [to the tournament] the last 11 years. That should say enough. For the players, it's very important that they understand that it's never automatic. There's no `because you play at Maryland' or `we're supposed to be good.' That doesn't mean you qualify."
Though you'd never know it from the banter on local sports talk radio over the past couple of weeks and the posts on Internet fan message boards, other programs have experienced steeper falloffs and rebounded just fine. Just two seasons after winning its first national championship in 1998-99, Connecticut lost in the second round of the NIT. The Huskies were national champions last season.
Two years after playing in the 1999-2000 Final Four, North Carolina finished 8-20. The Tar Heels are now the popular pick to reign this year.
And then there's Indiana. After losing to Maryland in the title game, the Hoosiers have been back to the Big Dance only once (a second-round exit) and it could cost coach Mike Davis his job.
"[Teams] have little slips; that's part of it because there's so much competition out there," said ESPN analyst Dick Vitale, who described panic over the state of Maryland's program as both "ludicrous" and "absurd."
"Gary Williams is a great leader and [their program] will get healthy overnight. It just takes a couple of recruits."
As defending champs, the Terps went 21-10 and were within a Steve Blake jumper of beating Michigan State and returning to the Elite Eight in 2002-03. Last year, Maryland, the youngest team in Division I, fought through inconsistency to win 20 games, capture Williams' first Atlantic Coast Conference tournament title and make the second round of the NCAA tournament. But this season has been arguably the most disappointing since Williams took over at his alma mater in 1989.
"I think people expected this last year from Maryland, but last year, they were overachievers," said college basketball analyst and former Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins, who guided the Yellow Jackets to 354 wins in 19 seasons. "Having accomplished so much and having a lot of players back, that brought high expectations. But they still have a lot of young players."
Does youth best explain the Terps' up-and-down play the past two seasons? Or is it recruiting, attrition and injuries? Or just the rise of other programs that seek the same success Maryland has enjoyed?
Jim Boeheim, one of Williams' closest friends in the coaching fraternity, guided Syracuse to the NIT in 2002, but with the addition of talented freshmen Carmelo Anthony (Towson Catholic) and Gerry McNamara, the Orange won the 2003 national championship.
Said Cremins: "To me the answer is always in recruiting. You have to keep recruiting."
Williams, buoyed by the sparkling new Comcast Center and the equally sparkling trophy in its foyer, seemingly cashed in on the national exposure the Terps got from winning the national title. The next year he brought in freshmen John Gilchrist, Chris McCray, Nik Caner-Medley and Travis Garrison and junior-college transfer Jamar Smith, perhaps Williams' most highly touted recruiting class and one that analysts ranked as one of the 10 best in the country.
Then, the next year, Williams brought in another lauded five-man class, headed by guard Mike Jones, ranked behind only LeBron James among high school shooting guards, and forward Ekene Ibekwe, a Parade All-American.
None of the players has developed into a consistent 18-point-per-game scorer or a dominant rebounder. And Jones and Garrison, who came with the most sterling resumes as McDonald's All-Americans, are still in the process of trying to become better all-around players in College Park.