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George Solomon

Local Teams Put On Their Saturday Best

By George Solomon
Sunday, February 20, 2005; Page E02

Nothing very coy or subtle about Maryland's men's basketball coach Gary Williams or his recent interviewer, John Thompson, the former Georgetown coach-turned-broadcaster. The night after the Terrapins defeated Duke, 99-92, in overtime to sweep the regular season series with the Blue Devils for the first time in 10 years, Thompson had his onetime rival on his Sunday night Westwood One college basketball show asking him what he told his players before the start of overtime.

"I told them 'You can't lose,' " Williams related, lavishing praise on players John Gilchrist, Nik Caner-Medley and Ekene Ibekwe. Williams, whose Terrapins have been to the NCAA tournament 11 straight times, winning it all three years ago, knows you can't take anything for granted on Selection Sunday.

Former Georgetown basketball coach and current radio host John Thompson, left, says the success generated by Maryland Coach Gary Williams, below, and other area basketball teams, is "an inspiration." (1999 Photo Craig Herndon -- The Washington Post)

But for one Saturday in February the town's three hottest men's college basketball teams -- Maryland, Georgetown and George Washington -- seemed to have done all the right stuff in hopes of getting NCAA tournament bids next month.

Georgetown's 67-60 victory over West Virginia was another in a season of big surprises from first-year coach John Thompson III's guys. What also was encouraging for Georgetown was a season-high turnout of 14,458 fans at MCI Center. Smaller in number, the sellout Smith Center crowd of 5,252 equaled the MCI Center noise as Karl Hobbs's Colonials routed a good Richmond team, 80-63, to move closer to their postseason goal.

In his coaching days at Georgetown that spanned nearly three decades, the elder Thompson was often reluctant to regularly play other local teams. "They were too good," he likes to say now. "It shows how much respect I had for these teams."

In an interview the other day, Thompson said the success of the three local teams "helps everybody and creates excitement. It's an inspiration." He remembered when Williams first came to town to coach at American University, in 1978, before moving on to Boston College and Ohio State and returning to coach his alma mater in College Park 16 years ago. "He was a baby at AU," Thompson recalled. "Now he's the old warrior. Times change. But Gary has his kids overachieving. His biggest problem was replacing D.J. Strawberry when he was injured."

Of the Colonials and Hobbs, Thompson said: "Karl is doing a great job. He's so aggressive. His team came out of the gate smoking, faster than any team in town."

The team closest to his heart, of course, drew disparaging comments early on from the father/analyst, perhaps to ease the pressure. But the tune is different now: "[Freshman] Jonathan Wallace set the tone early for the team and [freshman] Jeff Green has been outstanding. Now the upperclassmen have picked up the pace."

GW Athletic Director Jack Kvancz's assessment that all three teams are worthy of NCAA bids is noteworthy since Kvancz was once a member of the NCAA selection committee. Whether or not that happens remains to be seen, but one Saturday in February is worth remembering regardless of what happens the rest of the season.

Student Uproar

Of course, the usual postgame riot in College Park last Saturday night following the Duke game that resulted in 14 arrests detracted from the team's performance and improved fan behavior (a 7.5 on the civility meter) at Comcast Center. Seven of those arrested were students, none of them my journalism kids. Some students say the police overreacted, others said many of the people involved in the disturbance were non-students, and College Park and university officials agree "outsiders" are a problem.

Seems to me the university has a responsibility to keep its students from participating in postgame gatherings that lead to riots, even if that means booting the worst offenders out of school.

A Season to Forget

If the NHL owners wanted a truncated season and full slate of playoffs, there would have been a deal Wednesday. Instead, Commissioner Gary Bettman canceled what was left of the season, even though the NHL Players Association agreed to accept a salary cap of $49 million per team. But the owners wanted the cap at $42.5 million, so that was that. No Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in 86 years; the first full season of a major pro sport ever canceled in this country over a labor dispute. As Marge, the canny small-town police officer in the movie "Fargo" said: "And for what? For a little bit of money."

The two sides met again yesterday, but at the end of the day no settlement had been reached, and no new talks have been scheduled.

Caps owner Ted Leonsis says his team is "viable, financially stable and well-positioned to be successful." We'll see if he's right -- and if there are any hockey fans in town who still care.

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