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Mike Wise

Adversity Ignites Williams's Fire

By Mike Wise
Thursday, January 20, 2005; Page D01

The great thing about a seemingly miserable guy like Gary Williams is, at his core, he craves the hardship. Given the choice between prosperity and a cigarette and blindfold, he might ask for a match. He would rather win with a player nobody wanted like Juan Dixon than be forced to recruit the most pampered high school all-Americans. In his mind, Williams does not lord over a perennial college basketball power; he annually nurtures adversity's children.

It's not that being .500 in the ACC after four games is a real sign for concern. It's not that Williams wants to deal with the indispensable D.J. Strawberry being lost for the season to a severe knee injury, a monster blow to the Terrapins. Williams could live without his best player, point guard John Gilchrist, eyeing his point total on the stat sheet a couple of weeks ago. He wishes he could say his front court was better than decent.

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Maryland pulls away to an 82-68 win over Virginia.
D.J. Strawberry will miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL.
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But in his back-to-the-wall world, Williams actually embraces what Maryland faces the next few weeks. Because it means the rest of Terps' season is about Gary finding a way to get the kids to believe in themselves again.

Hasn't that been the hold the program has had on the region for about a decade?

"He would be yelling at us when we were winning and we would look at each other like, 'Coach is crazy,' " Gilchrist said after Maryland wore down Virginia in the final 15 minutes and won, 82-68, last night at Comcast Center. "But when we lost a couple of games, the message sunk in. We knew what he was doing all along. We just started to get it."

The Virginia win wasn't monumental, pushing the Terps to 2-2 in the ACC and 11-4 overall. But given the circumstances, Williams would have to characterize it as more than encouraging.

Gilchrist shot poorly but shared the ball. Maryland's young big men were active in the middle. And Williams's team came back from a deficit threatening to reach 10 or more points at the start of the second half before going on a run that sapped Virginia's resolve.

The game was a microcosm of the Maryland program for much of the Williams era. The Terps show promise. They stumble. They grow. And eventually an entire state is spinning from their fingertips, well into March.

"I don't know what everyone is worried about, they'll be fine," said Terrell Stokes, the former Maryland point guard who is now an assistant coach at Loyola in Baltimore. "It's like this every year. People think we're having all this trouble, all this turmoil. And they come through. Last year, they thought we were in trouble and that team won the ACC tournament.

"By Monday, they could be 3-2 in the league and 12-4 overall. That puts them on track again. I know Gary is telling them the same thing."

But there have to be concerns that this may be one of Williams's most trying recent seasons. This team is not a potential national champion coming off a Final Four year, trying to find its swagger in 2002. It's not a ridiculously young team with low expectations, shockingly winning the ACC tournament a year ago. A 12th straight NCAA tournament appearance is no lock, irrespective of how Maryland looked last night.

Williams keeps playing down those blowout losses on Tobacco Road last week to then-No. 4 Wake Forest and No. 3 North Carolina. On one hand, Florida State knocking off Wake Forest on Tuesday night illustrates how wide open the ACC is. On the other, wasn't Florida State supposed to be a minor blip on the Terps' schedule?

"I don't buy adversity makes me a better coach," he said last night. "We won the national title a couple years ago and won 32 games. I was a pretty good coach that season."

Maybe, but it's when Maryland stumbles that Williams is at his motivational best. Losing like the Terps did last week became a referendum on how far the program has fallen outside the locker room. Inside, "He just told us we lost a couple games to good teams on the road and to put it behind us, don't make too much of it," Nik Caner-Medley said.

Before Strawberry's injury, the worst distraction in Garyland was the touch-and-go relationship between Williams and Gilchrist. Just as Larry Brown thinks every point guard should see the game the way he did at North Carolina, no point guard at Maryland will ever see the floor as Williams believes he saw it during his playing days.

Gilchrist is from a different generation of point guards: the scoring generation. Seeing him slow the game down and find the open man -- instead of dominating the ball, dribbling the shot clock down and throwing up a jack-knifing layup -- was refreshing. Can he keep it up?

Travis Garrison, the highly touted McDonald's All-American, has yet to find a rhythm. Ekene Ibekwe is a nice, active, highlight player. But can the 6-foot-9 sophomore bring Maryland a week or two of 12-point, 10-rebound performances? Will Bowers has a nice drop-step and up-and-under move. But there is no consistent back-to-the-basket scorer on these Terps to yet take enough pressure off Gilchrist and Caner-Medley, the team's second-best player whose 26 points led Maryland against Virginia. The loss of Strawberry cannot be discounted. Strawberry is among the best sixth men in college basketball, Maryland's third-best player. On a guard-oriented team of shooters, Strawberry actually cared about disturbing the passing lanes, creating deflections and doing the general grunt work. And that treacherous ACC schedule looms: Maryland still has Duke twice, Georgia Tech once, North Carolina once, N.C. State twice and Miami.

It would do no good to tell Williams about the flip side, how the ACC is not really as deep as advertised. That Duke will eventually be exposed. That after Wake Forest, North Carolina and Georgia Tech, the rest of the conference is a virtual crapshoot. Or that Gilchrist, warts and all, is very good. That even in the loss at Wisconsin, this club showed the chemistry and talent to make a spring run.

It would kill the coach's mind-set, Williams's everybody's-against-us spiel.

Better to rub the hard times in, until it stings and drives his locker room closer, toward a halftime, bunker-down mentality: "Everybody's writing us off. They think we're done, NIT material."

Williams is tremendous at selling Terps-Against-The-World, because it plays into every fear-of-failure insecurity of every successful coach. And on a cold and snowy night in College Park, the night Strawberry was sidelined for the season and Maryland had to rebound against Virginia, that adversity is what Gary Williams and his program secretly live for.


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