UM answers NIT call, questions NCAAs

Left out of field of 65, Williams accepts less prestigious bid, ponders NCAA selection criteria

Ncaa Tournament

March 13, 2006|By HEATHER A. DINICH | HEATHER A. DINICH,SUN REPORTER

COLLEGE PARK -- It took one phone call late last night from the National Invitation Tournament committee chairman to persuade Maryland coach Gary Williams to change his mind and participate in this year's postseason tournament.

About two hours after realizing it was clear his team had not been included in the NCAA tournament's field of 65, Williams announced the Terps would not be playing in the NIT, either.

Minutes later, he did an about-face.

In the midst of explaining his original decision, Williams was summoned back upstairs by Maryland's chief financial officer to take a phone call from NIT chairman C.M. Newton. He convinced Williams the tournament has improved since it was purchased this summer by the NCAA, and it is now under the direction of former coaches Newton, Dean Smith, Don DeVoe, Reggie Minton, Jack Powers and Carroll Williams.

About 10 minutes later, Gary Williams returned and said, "We're playing."

The Terps earned a No. 1 seed and will play the winner of tomorrow's Manhattan-Fairleigh Dickinson game at 11 a.m. Saturday at Comcast Center.

"I just didn't know a lot about the NIT, the new format, and in talking to C.M. Newton, that helped a little bit," Williams said. "I would think with the resources the NCAA has, they can make it a better tournament. We'll see."

Toward the end of the season, the NIT sends dozens of schools information packets about the tournament facilities, ticket sales and other financially relevant tidbits. Maryland sent it back for the NIT to consider, but Williams never saw it.

Although it was not binding, Williams said last night that the packet was one of the reasons he had accepted the bid, in addition to the respect he has for the men on the committee.

Williams said he knew his original choice to not play would not be a popular decision, but he said each team is different, and last year he had younger players. He also was concerned about senior forward Nik Caner-Medley's sprained ankle, and said D.J. Strawberry had injured his hand.

"Not having to play until Saturday certainly helps the situation," Williams said.

They were hoping, though, to play in the NCAA tournament.

On a day when college basketball teams across the country were celebrating their spot in the field of 65 on national television, the team lounge at Comcast Center was quiet, the door closed to outsiders.

Williams privately addressed his players after Maryland's name had not been called, and the Terps then begrudgingly traipsed onto the court for an obligatory interview session with reporters. Sophomore forward James Gist leaned against the basket at the south side of the gym, alone, while a few of his teammates stood against a railing, their shoulders slumped.

Even Williams was soft-spoken as he discussed his team's failure to receive an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament for the second straight season, but Williams said this wasn't like last year.

Midway through the season, Maryland had to replace leading scorer Chris McCray, which forced Williams to insert Mike Jones into the starting lineup, and in turn develop the bench quickly.

"That was a lot to do, and you don't usually do those things in January," he said. "I told them I was proud of the way they hung in there, all year. This was not an easy year. There were a lot of things happening this year that hadn't happened before. We had to survive that and we did. A lot of teams would've quit in our situation. We didn't; we got better."

The Terps had regrouped at the end of the season and won three straight heading into the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in Greensboro, N.C. They beat Georgia Tech in the first round, but couldn't handle Boston College on Friday, scoring just 22 points in the first half.

Strawberry said he would play in the NIT, if only to get better for next season.

"Obviously it will be disappointing not making the NCAA tournament, but to win the NIT wouldn't be that bad," he said. "At least you proved to everybody you were the best team in the NIT."

Caner-Medley said the NIT field has improved because a fair number of quality teams were left out of the NCAA tournament. Miami, Florida State, Virginia, Wake Forest and Clemson are also in the tournament.

"The way the NCAA tournament selection committee is picking teams now, the NIT is turning into a better and better tournament," he said. "More and more teams from the big conferences are ending up in the NIT because they're taking more teams from the - I guess you could say smaller conferences."

Only four teams from the ACC were selected to the NCAA tournament, a number that baffled Williams. Air Force (24-6) and Utah State (23-8) received bids, but both had a lower Rating Percentage Index than Maryland. Wisconsin and Arizona both had 19-win seasons like Maryland and earned bids.

"What makes them better than us? I don't know," Williams said. "I haven't broken it down that much."

Williams said maybe the ACC needs to "lobby a little harder, talk a little more during the year about what a great league it is we have.

"Obviously, you can turn it around and say we should win more games than 19."

heather.dinich@baltsun.com

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