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Mike Wise

All That Promise Reduced to This

By Mike Wise
Tuesday, March 8, 2005; Page D01

Weren't there moments not that long ago when it seemed like they were all headed for the NCAA tournament? Maryland, the torch bearer of local college basketball for more than a decade, would be shipped off to its 12th straight first round. George Washington, the giant-killer that defeated the Terps and Michigan State in early December, would be in one nook and cranny of the country. Upstart Georgetown would be in another, trying to prolong John Thompson III's surprising inaugural season.

Just a minute ago, wasn't Gary Williams's club knocking off Duke, GW cracking the top 25 and Georgetown becoming the feel-good story of the season?

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Today, it's almost NIT or bust, baby.

Terps vs. Hoyas, first round at the Comcast Center. Be there.

Maybe one will advance to Madison Square Garden and the consolation final four. From College Park to Georgetown, the student body should be running around, yelling, "We're Number 66!"

Really, the celebration of college basketball in this area is beginning to ring hollow.

George Washington might need a decent week in the Atlantic 10 tournament to make the NCAA tournament, and if not the Colonials can probably fall back on their 19 wins.

But Maryland most likely needs to get by Clemson on Thursday, a team the Terrapins have lost to twice already, and then North Carolina the next day. That's highly unlikely, maybe impossible. And Georgetown is done unless the Hoyas pull off a miracle at the Garden during the Big East tournament beginning Wednesday. They've lost five straight.

Some college hoops renaissance, huh?

Georgetown gets a major pass, because no one expected Thompson's team to compete in the Big East. All that happened to the Hoyas was that they found their level. The Princeton offense can only hide so many flaws. With all due respect to Brandon Bowman and frosh Jeff Green, the team's talent level is among the big least in Division I. It's amazing the Hoyas got this far.

The Colonials fell off the map for a while, but that was to be expected of Karl Hobbs's mostly young team. Players got a little too excited about their ranking and forgot that some A-10 teams could still play with them. Now that their heads are on straight, the Colonials are on the rebound. But is it too late for their first NCAA bid since 1999?

Yet there is no excuse for what happened at Maryland, maybe the biggest tease and disappointment of Williams's career.

Almost as disturbing seeing the body language of John Gilchrist's teammates toward the mercurial starting point guard near the end of the loss to Virginia Tech on Saturday that put the Terps' season on the brink.

There is no easy way to say this, especially because you're dealing primarily with 18- to 22-year-olds: But the promise of a very good team disintegrated each time Gilchrist dominated the ball and stopped trusting his teammates. In a year, Gilchrist somehow morphed from John Lennon into Yoko Ono; the leader of the band became the reason it broke up.

One of the great sporting events of the year comes to MCI Center on Thursday, and the Terps probably won't make it to the weekend. Williams has complained over the years about the ACC tournament being held on Tobacco Road, thereby giving the Carolina teams a distinct home-court advantage. Now, the moment it comes to the Maryland coach's backyard, you wonder if the hosts will even show at their own party.

How do you beat Duke twice and you can't beat Clemson or N.C. State once? And if you're Gilchrist, how do you go from enjoying the signature moment of your career at last season's ACC tournament to being the leader of a mediocre team that has not won anything?

Gilchrist has said players are "fighting things we can't even see." He said teammates, but not him, were "dealing with personal issues that the media and fans do not know about." What is he talking about? We have no idea. We only know for certain that Maryland and Gilchrist have not been right since winning the ACC tournament last season, a triumph that Williams has got to believe was more curse than blessing. Because that's when Gilchrist blew up, double-clutching, dribbling through nine other players until he made some incredible twisting layup that made him the MVP of a long, improbable weekend.

Every starter except Jamar Smith returned from that team. There were few reasons the Terps should not have been in top 10 contention, especially the way they knocked off Duke twice and nearly took out North Carolina, a likely No. 1 seed. The season-ending knee injury to D.J. Strawberry should not be minimized. He played defense and got his hands in the passing lanes like no one else on that team.

But what a disappointing front court. Every time Travis Garrison and Ekene Ibekwe appear on the verge of real development, they go backward. Will Bowers improved, but not enough to pick up the slack. Nik Caner-Medley usually declared himself open after he crossed mid-court. He was more than a gun; you could actually see him begin to think he belonged among some of the country's best offensive players. Yet when it mattered, he was usually like the rest, incapable of making an important defensive stop.

The problem with winning the ACC tournament a year ago was, this Maryland team always thought it could instantly resume being that team. In reality, the Terrapins got hot for one week last March, and that become their identity more than their youth and inconsistency. Young and spotty is what they always were. Gilchrist had a tournament like Randolph Childress for Wake Forest in 1995. Like Childress, who had two forgettable NBA seasons after college, Gilchrist has not been that player again.

In Maryland's loss to Virginia Tech, all the liabilities came to bear. Defensive lapses. Poor on-court chemistry. Gilchrist was at the center of the demise, flinging up shots near the end. He was a distraction -- almost a sideshow -- in a must-win game.

Maybe Gilchrist was right when he said earlier this season that worrying about the NCAA tournament shouldn't be the biggest thing in the world. Maybe kids playing college basketball should try to enjoy the game first and not treat it like a job.

Because when you view this maddening Maryland season through Gilchrist's prism, that's all you see: belaboring.

It's too bad. More than Georgetown or GW, the Terps really had the makings of something.

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