By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 7, 2006
Gary Williams remembers when another college basketball coach, Kentucky's Tubby Smith, told him about the fans who placed a for-sale sign on his lawn after the Wildcats lost to Vanderbilt last season. It was a reminder that coaches, perhaps more than ever, are judged by their last game, regardless of whether they own a national title.
For Williams, who is four seasons removed from winning a national championship at Maryland, criticism comes in the form of letters and phone calls from fans. Tonight, the Terrapins, who have not made the NCAA tournament since 2004, open a season in which they hope to change the perception, both nationally and locally, that they are a program on the decline.
"I've won 500 and whatever games and a national championship and all that is great, but this is now," said Williams, who is entering his 18th season at his alma mater with 560 career Division I victories. "In people's minds, you have to win. That's okay. I accept that challenge."
During each of the past two seasons, Maryland won 19 games and fell at least one victory short of reaching the NCAA tournament. During the period, the Terrapins appeared to lose footing as the Washington area's premier college basketball team. Last season, George Washington, which had the country's best regular season record, and George Mason, which reached the Final Four, had banner years. This season, Georgetown, which has recruited well locally, is expected to challenge for the national title.
When Williams was asked whether Maryland needs to reach the NCAA tournament to have a successful season, he said: "I don't know. I have to see how the year goes."
The last two Maryland teams were on track to reach the tournament until unexpected mid-season losses of key players. Two years ago, D.J. Strawberry tore ligaments in his knee. Last year, co-captain Chris McCray was ruled academically ineligible.
The struggles of the last two seasons, both on and off the court, have left Williams more determined to restore the program.
He has made a point of publicly addressing the need for his players to be "good citizens" and student-athletes. Williams took questions from the crowd after a recent scrimmage and talked about the importance of players being role models and interacting with other students on campus.
The comments came after a year in which two seniors were arrested (one had charges dropped); McCray was ruled academically ineligible in January; and, NCAA graduation rates for the team were the worst in the ACC.
"We lacked discipline last year," Strawberry said. "That's a leader's job. I've talked to the coaches about it. They want me to help the younger guys. It started off the court; we handled everything from the classroom to the social stuff."
Williams said one thing he may do differently is be more specific about the nature of a team rules violation if a player gets into trouble. "After last year," he said, "you might have to go more public than that if it could help a kid from getting in trouble again."
Williams also said that for the first time in his career as head coach, the discipline of athletes who miss classes will not be left to the discretion of the head coach. Beginning this fall, new class attendance rules drafted by the university's athletic council are in effect for sports teams.
There are a number of on-court issues as well, starting with the defense. Williams said last season's team played the worst defense of any team he can remember coaching. The Terrapins allowed the most points per game among the 12 ACC teams.
The point guard position is also a question mark, but at least Williams has more options. Strawberry may still play the position some after struggling at times handling the ball last season. But Williams is more likely to turn to freshmen Eric Hayes and Greivis Vasquez. Both have helped bring an energy back to the team that players and Williams said was absent for much of the past two years.
"We're definitely trying to get some enthusiasm in here," Hayes said. "That's something we need to get back to the tournament."
Even with more point guard options and a roster with six seniors, returning to the NCAA tournament won't be easy. The Terrapins were predicted by the ACC media to finish seventh in a league that earned only four tournament invitations last season.
The conference schedule is encouraging in that Maryland will play the predicted top four teams in the ACC -- North Carolina, Duke, Boston College and Georgia Tech -- only five times, with three of those games at Comcast Center.
"Nobody is going to give you anything because you're Maryland," Strawberry said. "They want to beat you because you're Maryland, because you were up and now you're down. They want to keep you down."
Williams believes he did one of his best coaching jobs last season, when Maryland finished 8-8 in ACC play despite McCray's absence. But he said he takes responsibility for the team's shortcomings.
"I said it last year, 'It's my fault,' " Williams said. "That doesn't mean I'm not a competitor, that I'm not going to fight to do things like we have done them for 16 years. Those two years were one thing, but the other 16 years were another thing. You shouldn't forget those 16 years, you shouldn't forget when I got here in 1989 that this program had the worst athletic department in the country."