After a wild ride, Williams firms up his standing at UM

March 22, 2009|By Rick Maese | Rick Maese,rick.maese@baltsun.com

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -Five months earlier, an awkward and undersized group of basketball players took the court at Comcast Center and began its season with Maryland Madness, the first official practice of the season.

Expectations were low. One publication even picked the Maryland men to finish dead last in their conference. Their own fan base was already fracturing, as even longtime supporters were starting to question the future and the effectiveness of head coach Gary Williams.

"We're going to prove some people wrong," predicted Greivis Vasquez, the Terps' bold and colorful junior.

Five months later from Maryland Madness to March Madness - the group walked off the court at the Sprint Center, spirits hanging low and heads held high, their surprising season punctuated suddenly by inevitable disappointment. The Terps' unexpected appearance and brief run in the NCAA tournament ended yesterday in the second round, where Memphis doused water on a hot Maryland team, winning in impressive fashion, 89-70.

In recent days, they'd been buoyed by confidence - overconfidence in the cases of some - but it wasn't that long ago that the Terps were a team in danger, a basketball program in crisis. Time and time again, they showed how heart and effort and resilience can win basketball games. North Carolina at home. N.C. State on the road. Wake Forest in the ACC tournament. And then California in the NCAA tournament.

But in one afternoon, in just 40 minutes of basketball, they were shown that sometimes talent helps, too.

Memphis put on a clinic. The Terps were reduced to summer campers on the court. They couldn't run their offense, couldn't defend the perimeter and couldn't keep pace with a Tiger team that had struggled in its first-round game Thursday and used the hapless Terps to make a statement. At least summer campers get free T-shirts, though. All the Terps got was a series of lessons in moving the ball on offense, in defending it on defense, and in dominating an opponent in every aspect of the game.

The final numbers weren't pretty. Memphis was red-hot from the field. "There was nothing we could do," said Maryland senior Dave Neal. The Tigers were much bigger, too, and had more success executing their offense. One player, senior Antonio Anderson, had more assists (11) than the entire Maryland team (nine).

But oddly, all of the lopsided statistics felt like mere footnotes. The season won't be remembered for a second-round loss in the NCAA tournament; it'll be remembered for a second-round appearance.

It'll be remembered as a year that cemented Williams' place on campus, that validated his keen abilities as a game coach, even as questions continue about his recruiting efforts.

It also reaffirmed Williams' own beliefs in young student-athletes. That's why, after the game, he stood before them in the locker room and reminded them that doubters and critics were standing in line to take a number, that the players persevered, that they returned the program to the NCAA tournament after a one-year absence. And no one, Williams told them, could ever take that way.

"I know overall, once we look back on this season, it's going to be a great one for us," said junior Eric Hayes.

In a season of nosebleed highs and antidepressant lows, the Memphis finale falls somewhere in the middle. It showcased so much of what was good and bad about this team.

An example of the bad: Vasquez's bold and foolish pronouncement that Memphis would struggle if it competed alongside Maryland in the Atlantic Coast Conference. "I was kind of happy he said it," conceded Tigers coach John Calipari, knowing players will pounce on any piece of motivation they can get. Vasquez will test the NBA waters this spring. Time will tell whether his skills are ready, but his mouth always seems to be a couple steps in front of him.[

An example of the good: Seeing Neal, the team's lone senior and a player no one foresaw as a big-time contributor, playing one last game, giving one last growl after a three-pointer.

"It's been a dream come true for me," he said. "I'll never forget it. I'll probably talk about this year the rest of my life."

I asked Williams how he'd look back on this year's team. I knew the answer as did anyone who watched the Terps fight their way off the tournament bubble and into the 65-team field - but it seemed appropriate to hear him say it one final time.

"I'll be really proud of this year's team," he said.

"They were incredible in terms of support for me."

Forty-five minutes after the Terps' season had ended, after the Tigers had shown a hungry nation of basketball fans why they were a No. 2 seed and a favorite for the Final Four and why the Terps were a No. 10 seed going home early, Maryland players were seated silently around the perimeter of the locker room. A chartered flight was waiting to whisk them away from the disappointment, but for the time being, all they could do was sit. And wait. Heads buried in hands, fingers twiddling with phones, eyes cast blankly ahead.

Finally, Williams walked in and checked his watch.

"Is that it?" he said, pulling his travel bag over his shoulder. "OK, let's go."

One by one, players rose from their seats, with no choice but to leave the NCAA tournament and their roller-coaster season behind. They filed out of the locker room and out of the arena, following their coach the entire way to the team bus.

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