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Michael Wilbon

Only as Good As Your Last Game

By Michael Wilbon
Friday, March 11, 2005; Page D01

If you make a list of the biggest disappointments in college basketball this season, the University of Maryland has to be right there at the top. Okay, Providence is a nominee. So is Texas. So is Memphis. So is Georgia Tech, which got all the way to the NCAA championship game last year and has struggled desperately the second half of this season.

But Tech and Texas at least will make the NCAA tournament this year. Maryland, at 16-12, almost certainly will not. Maryland has lost four straight games and five of six. When the ACC tournament begins in earnest today at noon, Maryland won't even be on the grounds. The Terrapins lost what amounts to a play-in game to Clemson yesterday. The team that lives right down the street couldn't even get to the big action today. On their way out, the Terrapins might have literally passed North Carolina, Wake Forest and Duke, on the way in.

Maryland students look on dejected as the Terrapins' run as ACC tournament champions came to a thud. (Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)

A year ago, Maryland had one of its proudest and finest moments. The Terrapins won the ACC tournament and did it in Greensboro, N.C. They came in as the No. 6 seed and beat up on No. 3 Wake, No. 2 North Carolina State and then No. 1 Duke to win the tournament championship. Beat three North Carolina schools in North Carolina? Some sycophants will tell you that felt better than winning the national title in 2002.

And making it even sweeter, Maryland had four starters and key reserves coming back from that team. Who wouldn't take that scenario? And the ACC tournament, finally, would be played right here in Maryland's backyard. After all the years of bellyaching about having to go to North Carolina and play all those schools on the road, the Maryland people -- Gary Williams and his players included -- couldn't wait for the tournament to come to Washington. Maryland's insecurity about its place in a conference anchored in the state of North Carolina is legendary and undeniable. This would be the time, with a veteran team defending its title, when Maryland could show the conference how to throw this party.

And here they're already gone, knocked out by a team from the other Carolina (hey, all those Carolinas are the same to folk up here in the north) that's not even a sure bet for the NIT. Talk about hurt. I couldn't even count all the people wearing Maryland red standing out on Sixth Street NW, trying to sell their tickets two hours after the tournament began. The Tar Heels hadn't even left Chapel Hill for Washington yet. What are the kiddies going to do in College Park now, burn mattresses in anticipation of that NIT bid?

After a season like this, folks want answers. What happened? Who's to blame? The worst time to ask a coach what went wrong with his team's season is immediately after a defeat which, in effect, ends the NCAA season, but Williams has had a little bit of time to think about what's gone wrong because his team has been in this tailspin for a while.

"What we didn't do this year was get better defensively," he said. "That's probably as responsible as anything for why we didn't play better down the stretch."

Also, just as Georgia Tech missed B.J. Elder and Texas missed P.J. Tucker when they were injured, Maryland has missed D.J. Strawberry. Even though Strawberry is the only reserve in that trio, his injury was just as devastating to Maryland because Strawberry was Williams's answer to both his team's defensive deficiencies and John Gilchrist's NBA obsession.

And we can always throw a little criticism at the coach when a team full of returning ACC champions stumbles so badly through a season.

But in this space the criticism is going to be limited to this season and this season only because what Maryland had done right up until yesterday's loss to Clemson was phenomenal. You know how many teams have qualified for the NCAA tournament 11 straight years?

The answer is five: Arizona, Cincinnati, Kansas, Kentucky and Maryland, in alphabetical order. That's it, that's the list. Note that Duke, North Carolina and Wake Forest aren't on that list. Gary Williams has taken a program that was given something very close to the death penalty by the NCAA and gave it life in a way the basketball program never had life. In those 11 years, Maryland reached the Final Four twice, won the championship once, went to the Sweet 16 a bunch of times. The Terps became, in that time, one of the great attractions in college basketball, a team the TV networks want on prime time, a team that can fill every single game in a 17,000-seat on-campus arena, the kind of building other big programs don't dare dream of constructing.

If a kid or two wants to let his own personal NBA agenda get in the way of keeping the streak going, it's a shame, really, especially to have the run stop this year when the ACC tournament is here. But there's no reason for it to stop for more than a moment. Seems like this kid Sterling Ledbetter can run the team just as well as Gilchrist. And if the NBA is calling Gilchrist that loudly, then by all means he ought to answer it.

Don't get me wrong, the disappointment over this loss is devastating. But it should be isolated, not like the kind of annual disappointment that has Virginia thrilled just to win a first-round game.

When asked to lobby for his team to be given an at-large invitation, it was great to hear Williams not do it. "Whatever we are, we are," he said. "Whatever happens, that's fine."

Williams has built too good a program here to beg, to have to go through his team's wins and losses in the moments after such a loss. As disappointing as this season has been, it's one season, and if we've come to learn anything about Williams and the program he's built, it's that the downers are very few and very far between.

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