ON BASKETBALL/John Feinstein: The Turtle Has Itself to Fear in Maryland's Men's Basketball Program

Gary Williams and Maryland, national champions in 2002, are in jeopardy of missing the NCAA tournament for the fourth time in the past five seasons.
Gary Williams and Maryland, national champions in 2002, are in jeopardy of missing the NCAA tournament for the fourth time in the past five seasons. (By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
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By John Feinstein
Thursday, January 29, 2009

These are not very happy days in College Park.

The men's basketball team, the one team that Maryland people truly care about, is struggling. It isn't just the 2-4 ACC record or the loss to Morgan State or the very real possibility there might be no NCAA tournament bid for the fourth time in five years.

It's more than that. It's a very real sense that everyone is flailing -- not so much at losing or at the opposition as at one another.

It has been an open secret for years that the athletic director and the basketball coach don't get along. Debbie Yow didn't hire Gary Williams. She can't take any credit for the program he built nor should she take any of the blame for its recent struggles. Now, the long-simmering animosity is out in the open, and it isn't a very pretty sight.

Williams, who rarely makes mistakes in public forums, made one Monday when the subject of his recruiting came up. When a basketball program that has been as great as Maryland's once was falls to the point where finishing in the top half of its league becomes an achievement, people are bound to ask questions.

And so, the question was asked: Why haven't you been able to get better players?

To be fair to Williams, the answer is a complicated one. Like any successful coach, he has lost key assistants when they had the chance to become head coaches: Billy Hahn left for La Salle; Jimmy Patsos went to Loyola; Dave Dickerson got the job at Tulane. What's more, Williams has never been willing to play the AAU game -- hiring AAU coaches who will deliver top players or "taking care" of them the way many top coaches do nowadays.

But the bottom line is always the bottom line. Williams faced huge challenges when he took over a program about to go on NCAA probation in 1989, and he overcame them to build a perennial NCAA tournament team (11 straight years) and a national champion in 2002.

The Terrapins were -- at worst -- the third-best program in the ACC during those years trailing only perennial national powers Duke and North Carolina. When Carolina slipped during the ill-fated Matt Doherty era, Duke and Maryland were the powers in the ACC.

That's all changed now. In the past five years, counting ACC tournaments and adding the six games played so far this season, Maryland's conference record is 46-48. It has played a total of four NCAA tournament games, going 2-2 without a trip to the round of 16. Compare that with the five previous seasons, which included two Final Four trips, four Sweet 16s and the national championship run: The ACC record was 65-25 and the NCAA tournament mark was 15-4.

Williams's answer to the recruiting question, regardless of any frustrations he might feel, should have been simple: "I love the kids I'm coaching right now, but we all know we need to get better. If we haven't recruited well enough, that's on me."

That's usually Williams's MO: If there's blame to be handed out, he'll take it. He has never been an "I coached good, they played bad" coach. After the loss to Morgan State his first comment was, "I didn't do a good enough job of getting the guys to understand why this was a dangerous game." This time, though, he talked about Gus Gilchrist's decision to leave Maryland last spring for South Florida and Tyree Evans ending up at Kent State instead of enrolling at Maryland as a freshman last fall.

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