Class Struggle Plagues Terps
Wednesday, January 25, 2006
After Saturday's victory over Virginia Tech, Chris McCray exited Maryland's locker room and approached a few ushers in the Comcast Center hallway. In a symbolic gesture, he shook each of their hands. Then he bundled up, walked down a long corridor and left. Alone.
This was McCray's unofficial farewell to the Maryland program; two days later, he was ruled academically ineligible. The news was a devastating blow to Maryland's season and the latest setback for a four-player class that once was projected as heirs to the success of the Terrapins' 2002 national championship team but now appears destined to be remembered mostly for its struggles on and off the court since it won the 2004 ACC tournament title.
When they arrived in the fall of 2002, McCray, Travis Garrison, Nik Caner-Medley and John Gilchrist were showered with adulation and seemed ready to take over from a group that made consecutive Final Four appearances. In the past two years, though, three have been arrested, and the fourth, Gilchrist, clashed so often with Coach Gary Williams that Williams called him the most difficult player he has ever coached.
When asked in a telephone interview about the class of 2006, Williams said: "I'm disappointed. But when you look at it, there are probably a few other college students on this campus that have been involved in the same situations. That's not an excuse, and you hope that they will be productive when they leave here because, whatever their experience has been, hopefully they see the right way to go. In recruiting, you try to do as much as you can background-wise before you take a player. These guys all had good backgrounds."
Williams said he wants to see what the four seniors are doing "five or six years from now" before he makes a judgment on the success of the class.
The 18th-ranked Terrapins (13-4, 3-2 ACC) will play without McCray beginning tonight, when they visit a Georgia Tech team (9-7, 2-3) that has struggled of late. The two remaining members of the original class will attempt another step toward returning to the NCAA tournament after Maryland missed it last season for the first time since 1993.
Arrival of 'Rock Stars'
In October 2002, the four-man class arrived in College Park with such fanfare Williams said they were treated like "rock stars." In fact, McCray told reporters after the team's Midnight Madness that he was surprised how fans adored the newcomers even though they had yet to attempt a shot.
"Guys like Juan Dixon, Lonny Baxter, Byron Mouton, Chris Wilcox, Steve Blake, they were good guys," Williams said. "People liked them. They were regular guys. Even though they won the national championship, it didn't change the type of people they were. People welcomed the class after that with open arms because of that."
The class featured four players ranked among the top 100 high school seniors nationally, including Garrison, who was named a McDonald's All-American after his senior season at DeMatha High.
"Most of the teams in the league would have been ecstatic to have a recruiting class with those four guys in it at the time," recruiting analyst Dave Telep said. "And at different points in their careers, each one of those guys has made a contribution to this basketball program. In retrospect, it was a good group that probably never meshed together and, as a result, probably did not max itself out as a recruiting class."
At first, there seemed to be harmony. In 2003, Gilchrist said of Williams: "Coach knows best. He is the one who is the Mozart of this offense and this team. . . . You've got to put your own basketball knowledge aside because he knows more."
The freshmen helped the team reach the NCAA tournament's round of 16 in 2003. The following season they became the core of the team and led the Terps to their first ACC tournament title in 20 years. Gilchrist, who never again had a brighter three-day stretch, was named the tournament's MVP. After a second-round loss to Syracuse in the NCAA tournament, however, trouble soon arose.