Butler loss a downer, but UM had its ups

Terps had a good year, despite loss to Butler

March 20, 2007|By RICK MAESE

Alittle over five months ago, one day before the Maryland men's basketball team began practicing for the 2006-07 season, a freshman sat at a table and met with reporters for the first time. He'd learned English only a couple of years before, but perfectly articulated the biggest challenge his new team faced.

"Our main goal is to change things here," said Greivis Vasquez, a native of Caracas, Venezuela, 19 years old at the time, "to try to make people see Maryland in a different way."

The easiest way to assess the relative success of an athletic season is to judge the postseason accomplishments against the preseason goals. But over the course of a 34-game season, expectations prove to be fluid, and midseason verdicts land with the precision and predictability of darts in a bar at last call.

The Terps were a success when they began the season with eight straight wins, despite handing the reins to a pair of freshman point guards.

They were a failure when they began the conference season 2-5, struggling with consistency and energy and prompting fans and pesky media types to ask uncomfortable questions about the state of the program.

They were again a success when they won their final seven games of the regular season, securing a return to the NCAA tournament after a two-year absence. And a failure when they lost in the opening-round of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament and then a week later in the second round of the NCAAs.

At seemingly every turn, the Terps took expectations and surprised everyone, winning when they were expected to lose and losing when they should have won.

And now that it's all done, with the sour taste of defeat still dancing on the sensitive buds of Terps fans, it's time to forget the evolving expectations and judge the program's growth based on those preseason goals.

Terps coaches and players would be the first to admit that Maryland could have dug its way deeper into the NCAA tournament. Against Butler, the school that splashed dirt on the Terps' coffin last weekend, Maryland could have played smarter and should have prepared better. The loss is the difference between a good season and what should have been a great one.

March losses to Miami and Butler were embarrassing in both scope and impact. For this team, the final notes left so much to be desired. For the program, however, the season was an unqualified success.

This team was never built like a Final Four team, never had the talent of a top-10 team and never showed the night-in, night-out effort of a Cinderella squad. But that was never what the season was really about.

This was to be the team that returned Maryland to the national stage, the group that tapped the compass a few times and realized it was time to change directions, the senior class that could proudly move on without thinking it had borrowed daddy's Lexus and crashed it into a telephone pole.

Before the season, coach Gary Williams described the team's goals in vague fashion, seeming content with an end-of-the-year picture that would contrast greatly with the previous season's team.

"The obvious answer is that we want to win every game we play, but that's very hard to do," he said. "We want to be good citizens here on campus. We're working hard in the classroom. As far as basketball is concerned, we want to play with a lot of emotion. That's important, and a lot of people don't realize that. We want to show how much we care about playing at Comcast Center and playing Maryland basketball."

It's classic coach-speak that happened to be personified by the program's recent struggles. The Terps had a mounting image problem, one it earned with a couple of appearances in the National Invitation Tournament, a couple of player arrests and a couple of shoddy academic reports. Sure, the NCAA tournament would be great, but the Terps had to make their games feel special again.

Just as the program slipped, Williams had to take a couple of steps backward. He seems to have learned that the fancy high school resume doesn't necessarily cut it in his system. He needs players who will roll around the floor, sacrifice their bodies and spend nights in the gym. Vasquez, Eric Hayes and Bambale Osby are cut from the same mold as Johnny Rhodes, Juan Dixon, Byron Mouton and Steve Blake.

With the turnaround season finished, it feels like the program has stabilized. Players like Vasquez and James Gist give hope for next year. And the grumbling and moaning have subsided.

"Make people see Maryland in a different way," Vasquez said in October.

And they did.

It's a small victory and while not exactly a shining moment, it is something to build upon, a bridge for our fluid expectations.

No fan, player or coach should expect it to be enough down the road, but coming off back-to-back NIT appearances, an early exit from the NCAA tournament was acceptable this time. Now that they've been reminded of the feeling, the Terps know that next year, a quick appearance will not be enough.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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