Terps lose face while snubbing their noses

NCAA tournament

March 15, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG

The Maryland basketball program didn't distinguish itself Sunday while being rightfully snubbed by the NCAA tournament selection committee and then saying no and, finally, yes to the National Invitation Tournament.

The episode pretty much summed up what's wrong with a program that has declined since winning a national title in 2002. The Terps seem to think the world still owes them because they went to back-to-back Final Fours, but the statute of limitations has run out on that.

It was understandable when Terps coach Gary Williams complained about not being invited to the NCAAs - venting from coaches who don't get invited is a seasonal rite - but in this case, there was such a disconnect from reality that it was almost sad. The Terps weren't even close to making the 65-team field.

Even though they played a tough schedule and split 18 games against Atlantic Coast Conference teams, they came up empty in too many games against above-average opponents. They couldn't beat Duke, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Temple, Gonzaga. They scored a few nice wins and didn't quit when Chris McCray became a midseason academic casualty, but they didn't accomplish nearly enough overall.

Senior forward Nik Caner-Medley seemed disconsolate Sunday night when he noted the Terps weren't on several networks' lists of teams that just missed the cut, but in reality, the Terps weren't on the bubble.

What little hope they generated by winning three straight games late in the season was quashed by their indifferent performance against Boston College in an ACC tournament quarterfinal defeat Friday night. The result left no doubt: They didn't belong.

When the snub became official Sunday night, the Terps initially turned down the NIT because Williams said he polled the players and none wanted to play. Huh? Were the players really in charge of that decision? Or did Williams just use that dodge to obscure his own lack of interest in an event for also-rans?

The situation cried out for level-headed adults to recognize the Terps would look petty and arrogant if they didn't play, but no one stepped in and the Terps announced they weren't playing - as if a program that hasn't produced a winning conference season since 2003 has a right to look down its nose at anyone or anything.

Yes, the Terps turned down the NIT in 1974, when Len Elmore and Tom McMillen were seniors, but the circumstances were entirely different - that nucleus of players had won the NIT as sophomores and reached the NCAA Elite Eight as juniors before losing in the ACC tournament final as seniors, leaving them out of the NCAAs with a 23-5 record because conferences could send just one team to the tournament then. Those Terps' frustrations were understandable.

These Terps don't warrant the same understanding. They were part of a three-way fight with Duke and North Carolina for ACC supremacy a few years ago, but they're no longer what they were, and the sooner they submit to that humbling reality, the sooner they can start focusing on trying to get better again.

It says a lot that these players were willing to let their season end so embarrassingly - with the no-show stinker against Boston College - instead of going back to work and trying to salvage some respect in the NIT.

Chalk it up as a final disappointment on the ledger of this year's senior class, a ledger that already includes arrests and academic problems.

Granted, you can understand players feeling frustrated immediately after being snubbed, even if their chances of receiving an invitation were minimal. They put in a lot of hours, they're competitive athletes and it hurts to fall short. Asking them about the NIT at that moment was like asking them if they wanted to date Roseanne Barr because Charlize Theron wasn't available.

But Williams changed his mind and said yes to the NIT after receiving a phone call from C.M. Newton, the respected former coach who is heading a panel of retired coaches attempting to upgrade the NIT now that the NCAA owns it. Williams later said he didn't know about the plan to upgrade the NIT, and also said he didn't know his program had submitted paperwork committing the Terps to play in the NIT if they didn't make the NCAAs. He didn't know a lot.

Maybe the paperwork snafu was just your typical case of left and right hands not communicating, but the whiff of procedural dysfunction was unsettling after a season in which a key player fell short academically.

In any case, the Terps are going to play in the NIT in the end, and that's where they belong, and if that doesn't match their self-image, well, maybe they need to look a little more carefully in the mirror.


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