No matter your opinion of him, Williams is ACC Coach of Year

March 02, 2007|By RICK MAESE

As the Maryland men's basketball team has re-emerged on the national landscape, two distinct schools of thought have suddenly grown from within the Terps' fan base. While other programs might use an Us vs. Them mentality, the Terps' success has cultivated something a bit different: Us vs. Them vs. Us Who Knew All Along (No, Seriously, We Did).

There's no room for infighting on the bandwagon. Those who never lost faith should find peace in the Terps' turnaround. Those who questioned the program's direction should find relief in the sudden about-face. But there's no reason for shame and certainly no penalty for failing to predict that Maryland would close the regular season as one of the Atlantic Coast Conference's top teams.

The cynic would suggest that I'm printing my own free pass here. Perhaps easing my own guilty conscience? After all, I was one the observers who felt a third straight appearance in the National Invitation Tournament was much more likely than this full-speed sprint into the NCAA tournament. And guess what? I'll stand by that statement: Back then, it was unlikely.

After they began the conference season 2-5 - remember, that was the Terps' worst start since 1992-93 - only blind faith could foresee them winning seven of their past eight (and most likely eight of their past nine, assuming they take care of North Carolina State tomorrow). The finish has been as exciting as it has been improbable, and the impressive run is why Gary Williams is the most deserving candidate for ACC Coach of the Year honors.

The question keeps popping up, and everyone thinks he knows the answer. To what do we attribute this turnaround? D.J. Strawberry's electric performances? Strong inside play? Maturing freshmen? Unselfish guards? Yep, those are all contributing factors, but none touches what Williams has meant to this team.

Whether you enjoy his courtside gymnastics routine or not, his energy level rubbed off on this bunch, and the players began playing with the same emotion with which Williams coaches. He may never wear out the odometer on the recruiting trail, but Williams' in-game decisions have been mostly superb.

With a nod to Virginia's Dave Leitao and Virginia Tech's Seth Greenberg, no one in the ACC has done a better job this season. No coach has improved his team as much. No other coach has motivated, inspired or successfully set up camp in the fragile head of the student-athlete quite the way Williams has the last month of the season.

And as strongly as we've questioned some of his statements in the past couple of months, there are still words coming out of his mouth that I just don't understand. Did you hear about his choice for ACC Coach of the Year?

"In all the years, Mike [Krzyzewski] has had championship teams and did not get the Coach of the Year award in the ACC," Williams said after the Terps' win over the Blue Devils on Wednesday night. "It usually goes to somebody else - the hot new guy or whatever. The job he's done this year with his team, with the young players out there that he has, it's outstanding."

Whatever. Was Dick Vitale practicing his ventriloquist routine, or what?

Terps fans being shamed by their know-it-all brethren should take comfort in this: Predicting a season-ending winning streak like this would have seemed foolish a month ago.

Remember, the Terps have won six consecutive league games during just three seasons in the past two decades. And do you know how many times they swept Duke and beat North Carolina in the regular season? Not a single time since the ACC was formed in 1953.

In retrospect, maybe it was too early to start scouting NIT opponents, but anyone who suggested Maryland would put together this kind of run to close out the regular season probably has a Terrapins logo embroidered on his straitjacket.

The reality is, even Williams wasn't sure. He had certainly hoped, but who really knew?

But that unpredictability is precisely what has made the past few weeks so entertaining and exactly what makes the next few so promising.

No Maryland prediction feels safe right now, but there's at least one more worth making: The coach who many felt had grown too comfy can leap from that hot seat and clear space on his mantel. It might have seemed unlikely just one month ago, but next week when they start passing out awards, Williams will be most deserving of the ACC's top coaching honor.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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