Williams still long distance from fixing Terps' woes

May 28, 2006|By RICK MAESE

The past few days were supposed to be filled with lasting basketball memories. Gary Williams' trip to the Middle East should've reminded him why he likes coaching, why the game's so important and what effect a goose-pimpled orange ball can have on the world.

Let's hope his visit to Kuwait really was meaningful because while he was overseas coaching troops up and down the court, his program back in College Park hit a new level of disarray. He'll return to town this week and immediately begin recruiting two players he thought the Terps had already locked up. Plus, for the fifth time in the past two years, he has to hire a new assistant coach.

Yes, this offseason picked up right where the regular season left off, and suddenly there's no longer a clear turning point in sight for Maryland's struggling men's basketball program.

More and more the Terps are resembling a program that's spun out of control, which is dangerous because control has been a prominent theme of Williams' teams. Most of the headlines over the past several months have been cause for concern, not hope, and it's clearly getting to Williams.

Last week we learned that Jeff Jones, a key recruit for the 2007-08 season, has backed out of his oral commitment. And even worse, there might be a cloud over the future of recruit Eric Hayes, who already has accepted a scholarship for next season.

Team officials downplay that possibility and Hayes himself says he's "not going anywhere" but don't think there isn't significance in Hayes' father requesting a meeting with Williams. Kendall Hayes, also his son's high school coach, says he has some "questions" for Williams.

When a prominent coach is an ocean away talking with military personnel and a recruit's parent interrupts that trip to schedule an in-person meeting, it's easy to see how "questions" translates into "concerns." And if Hayes has concerns, then everyone whose loyalty is tied to the Terps suddenly has reason for concern, too.

Hayes is key to the team's future, and Williams' ability to return the program to the top of the Atlantic Coast Conference is strongly tied to the incoming point guard. Hayes knows it, his father knows it and anyone who watched how poorly the Terps played with D.J. Strawberry running the point knows it.

Oh, and certainly Williams knows it, too. That's why when the Hayes story first hit newsprint last week, Williams placed an international phone call to The Sun, issuing a profanity-laced complaint.

He insisted that everyone's out to hurt his program, that nothing will come of it, that the story's not important - suggestions that ultimately don't make much sense. Clearly it was important enough for Williams to call from 6,500 miles away to complain to a reporter, clearly Kendall Hayes' concerns are important enough to prompt a meeting and clearly Williams is growing more and more wary over what's happening with his program. (Williams was not available to comment last night. The seven-hour time difference made a formal interview impossible, said a team spokesman.)

Control? It's what you desperately seek when everything else feels like it's slipping away. No one will question Williams' past record, but it's the future that has everyone concerned.

The national title, the ACC tournament title - those things guarantee the Terps exactly zero victories next season, and it's time Williams and his program are judged by recent history. You cannot keep qualifying mediocrity by pointing at the track record.

Because the future doesn't care about the national title. The future doesn't care about how many NBA players came through College Park. The future doesn't care that Williams still thinks his team deserved to be in the NCAA tournament last season or that Ekene Ibekwe somehow thinks he might be drafted.

The future, in part, depends on what happens right now.

The prevailing thought was that the Terps would likely be back in the NCAA tournament in 2007, riding the shoulders of the young talent mined by former assistant coach Rob Moxley.

But Moxley left the program earlier this month for a similar position at Charlotte. It leaves a huge vacancy on Williams' staff, and means the head coach has to make sure the incoming players realize their commitments were to Williams and the school, not the departing assistant coach.

In what's supposed to be a quiet time for a college basketball coach, Williams finds himself in a pivotal period. It's no longer about control; it's about preservation. Jones, Hayes and Moxley were all part of a plan - a plan suddenly in jeopardy.

Looking over the roster and the incoming players, the Terps will have a difficult time reaching the NCAA tournament next year. The big question hanging above the Comcast Center is whether Williams and his volatile psyche can endure one more tough season.

Until recent turmoil, the program appeared poised to find success in 2007. What Williams does over the next few days and weeks could determine whether that plan remains intact.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

Read Rick Maese's blog at baltimoresun.com/maeseblog

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