Toast the Terps today, but not with half-empty glass

February 12, 2007|By DAVID STEELE

COLLEGE PARK — COLLEGE PARK-- --Gary Williams probably won't look any less hunched over this morning than he has all season, even though his team just finished handling Duke about as well as Duke could ever be handled.

No, he can't straighten all the way up yet, because everybody will still be on his back. On his Maryland players' backs, too, but mainly on his, because, you know, this disaster that has befallen the program the past three seasons is all his fault, and it's a miracle he still has his job.

Hey, maybe beating Duke yesterday saved his job. Because, think about it, what has he ever done for that school?

Williams doesn't have the thickest skin any big-time coach has ever had, but when he took his verbal shots at the army of critics after the convincing 72-60 victory at Comcast Center, he was wholly entitled.

"We're not in disarray. OK?" he said. "You don't beat the teams that we've beaten already this season and be in disarray. Disarray is losing seasons, and we haven't had one of those around here in a long time."

It's not crystal clear how and where Williams got locked in on that word, but pretty much every synonym for "disarray" -- most of them even harsher -- has been thrown at him and the team lately.

Too bad the word "premature" isn't being heard more often, or "unpredictable," because they describe as well as any word the NCAA tournament landscape right now, and the race for positioning in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Maybe those words will get a little more traction now.

If not them, then these: "spoiled rotten."

That's for you, Maryland faithful ... not. When exactly did College Park turn into Tallahassee or Ann Arbor, anyway?

Listen long enough, and you wonder, as Williams does, if he's dragging some school through three straight 3-25 seasons, or whether that national championship was in 1962 instead of 2002. Fair enough if everyone's convinced the honeymoon is over, but the volume of whining a month before the brackets get filled has to be an all-time high.

The last thing any sensible college basketball follower can assume is how the rest of this season will go for all but the top dozen or so teams in the nation -- and, as was proved yesterday, that includes almighty Duke.

The Terps may be the most aggravating team in America this season, but if Duke is still considered a top 20 team -- at 5-6 in the conference, a whopping half-game ahead of the supposedly bottom-dragging Terps -- then Maryland isn't as close to being done as so many believed.

Call a season on pace for a third straight National Invitation Tournament trip "disarray" if you like, but at least wait for the season to play out. Nobody could even wait until yesterday's game tipped off. From the level of gloom exhibited between the loss to Virginia and yesterday, one might have assumed two things: 1) The Terps would be mathematically eliminated from NCAA consideration with a loss, and 2) this was the Duke of last year, or the year before, or five years ago.

Wrong on both, especially on the latter. And that, above all, ought to tell everybody not to count their NIT chickens before they've hatched. This game looked winnable even before Virginia won at Comcast and before Duke folded like the morning paper Wednesday against North Carolina, in front of the Cameron Crazies, yet.

Had Williams been in a humorous frame of mind, he would've broken out his best Dennis Green impression and blurted, "The Blue Devils are who we thought they were! If you wanna crown 'em, crown 'em!"

Maryland was the better team yesterday. That 20-point lead was no fluke, and neither was the way it handled Duke's second-half runs and its own occasional impatience and sloppiness. The Terps were more talented and deeper and played smarter.

Know what else? They were better-coached, too. And it looks as if they recruited better three and four years ago.

No one envies the NCAA selection committee's task this year; it has the potential to enrage even more people than last year, big and mid-major conferences alike. Will a .500 ACC record get you in this year? Maybe, and 7-9 might, too -- and 9-7 might not. Splitting the final six and winning once in the ACC tournament might be good enough for Maryland. Or not.

And good luck guessing if it can; Williams and players can't even say they know. It cannot be denied that this is Maryland's second straight absolutely maddening senior class, and it's packaged with two freshmen who play major roles and have done what freshmen do.

But the Terps -- 18-7 overall, same as Duke -- could get in this year with almost the same record that kept them out by a hair last year. And that seems to be the core of the "problem." Apparently, after 2002, the Terps were supposed to be a No. 1 seed from here to eternity, never to see the bubble again.

Spoiled. Rotten.

Not that Williams is asking to be cut some slack for his team's excruciating inconsistency. He knows the Terps have to win their way in, and likely have no idea if they can. But he is asking for some common sense.

And for a dictionary, along with a record book and the standings. It's not clear that everybody knows the meaning of "disarray."

david.steele@baltsun.com

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