Finally, UM discovers selection, not rejection

March 12, 2007|By DAVID STEELE

Know why the Maryland players and coaches were so relaxed when their return to the NCAA tournament became official? They knew they had earned their way in.

Sounds like a clear statement of the obvious, but it's a unique feeling for most of this team. Each of the past two Marches, it took time for that point to sink in. At the moment of rejection, there always was anger and frustration expressed about the selection process, about past significant wins, about history and reputation and (most of all) conference affiliation.

It usually wasn't until later, away from the cameras, facing only themselves, that everybody realized that the win, or two or three, they needed to secure their berth, they simply never got.

This year - specifically yesterday at Comcast Center a little after 6 p.m. - was different.

"When you first come to a big school like Maryland, you think you're going to be in the NCAA tournament every year no matter what," senior D.J. Strawberry said. "It doesn't go like that. We had to learn the hard way. This year, coming back, we had to learn to put it in our hands and not put it in anyone else's hands."

Had they not learned from the past two seasons - that, in losing ugly in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament to Clemson and to Boston College, popping their own bubble - then their two-year absence from the NCAAs would have come off as even more of a waste.

But what teams don't already know that? Every year, programs air their initial gripes about being left out, curse the committee and beat the drum for expanding the field beyond 65 - yet in the silence of their own hearts, they know they had allowed others besides themselves to control their futures.

At least they should know it. Everybody else on March Madness Planet knows it.

Florida State, Syracuse, West Virginia, even this year's mid-major darling, Drexel, with its strong early-season nonconference wins - they all have to live with that. Not so much Clemson, which appears to have gotten truly jobbed twice, at Duke in January and against Florida State last week on the late "foul" on Al Thornton. But that's an old lesson: Don't let the refs decide the game.

They all knew they had to win their way in, and they couldn't. Just as Maryland couldn't for two years. Growing from such experiences is essential, and it becomes more essential now that the Terps have figured it out and know the good things that happen when they apply those lessons. Things like a No. 4 seed, barely a month after their hopes of even getting in seemed so dim.

Remember, the senior class saw its season saved by that electric run through the 2004 ACC tournament, and the juniors absorbed that as they entered the next year. There was more than a whiff of entitlement wafting around the program for a while.

"I didn't really know the whole NCAA process," junior James Gist said. "I just thought it was automatic that Maryland got in, because every year growing up, with me, I was so used to seeing Maryland in the tournament."

Going 11 straight years, with Selection Sunday usually answering when and where, not if, will do that to a young recruit.

"So when I get here," Gist continued, "and then we don't get in the tournament, I said, `Man, I didn't know it worked like that.' We really had to win all these games to even try to get in. It was just a lot of hard work. The last two years, we really didn't do what it took to get there."

One of Gary Williams' strengths is showing players that what they think is hard work isn't really what he thinks is hard work. These Terps learned the difference, although it took a little while and a lot of painful endings to seasons.

On the other hand, he does tend to miss the NCAA forest for the ACC trees, although he's far from alone with this conference, whose biggest shill remains Billy Packer and his network soapbox. Thus you get situations where seven conference teams making the field seems insufficient in some eyes, even after the uncommonly low number of four last season.

Last year, with George Mason and the revolt of the mid-majors, should have slapped some sense into everybody. Seven from the ACC this season seems eminently fair, and so does the swarm of at-large teams from former one-bid conferences (which is why the Colonial Athletic Association's Drexel can only blame itself, not the usual Goliaths, for being snubbed). Besides the CAA, the Atlantic 10, the Western Athletic, the Missouri Valley and Horizon got multiple bids.

Some real mediocrities from the big-foot leagues squeezed their extra dollars - er, programs - in as well. As if anyone really thinks Illinois, Arkansas or Stanford is going to catch fire. (Famous last words.)

That would have been Maryland the past two years had it made the field: smirked at for coat-tailing, name-dropping its way through the door, going because, as its own players confirmed, it just always does.

Somewhere between then and now, the Terps put a twist on the old joke about Carnegie Hall. How do you get to the Big Dance? Win, buddy, win.

david.steele@baltsun.com

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