By Steve Yanda and Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, February 12, 2009
For 30 seconds on the first day of April in 2002, there was no better view in college basketball than through the eyes of Maryland Coach Gary Williams. As the final minute of the NCAA tournament final ticked down inside the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Williams's team held a double-digit lead over the Indiana Hoosiers.
The national championship capped the remarkable revival of a program decimated by scandal in the mid- to late 1980s, and Williams had done it his way: with players who hadn't been highly coveted coming out of high school and without resorting to the schemes that were becoming increasingly prevalent in recruiting.
Seven years later, the view through Williams's eyes isn't nearly as appealing. The adoring fans have been replaced by angry skeptics. The Terrapins have reached the round of 16 only once since winning the title and are in danger of missing the NCAA tournament altogether for the fourth time in five seasons.
A review of NCAA tournament records shows that no national champion in the past 18 seasons has regressed so quickly.
How did this happen? Interviews with more than 50 coaches, players and others knowledgeable about the program reveal many explanations, and Williams, 63, is central to each of them.
Some say his disdain for under-the-table recruiting tactics has left him out of touch with the influential summer league circuit; others say he has grown complacent, delegating most recruiting duties to an ever-changing group of assistants. Clearly, Maryland has been hurt by landing highly touted recruits whose potential was never fulfilled and by failing to identify less-heralded future stars, many of whom attended high schools within short drives of College Park.
Williams argues that his 412-223 record at the school, including 11 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances from 1994 to 2004, proves his coaching acumen. He says he is as involved in recruiting as any coach in the nation and that the occasional recruiting misstep is to be expected in such an ephemeral task. "Well, you miss kids," he said. "This is not a perfect science."
Regardless of cause, the effect on the court has been clear: A program located amid arguably the deepest pool of high school talent in the country is fading. And Williams, in his 20th season coaching at the school where he played point guard more than four decades ago, could face pressure to step down after the season. Williams has three years left on a contract that pays him about $2 million annually in salary and benefits, but with another March looming with limited postseason prospects, even he admits "because of the bar we set, [that] is probably unacceptable to a lot of people."The Future Seemed Bright
From a personnel standpoint, the future of the Maryland program appeared incandescent on the night it claimed the national championship. The incoming recruiting class consisted of a McDonald's all-American power forward, a two-time All-Met shooting guard, a point guard who had been named the Virginia AAA player of the year as a junior and a small forward who was Maine's Mr. Basketball.
No one knew then -- not Williams, not his staff, not Terrapins fans -- that the program would have been better off with some of the recruits it had rejected.
Deron Williams, a point guard prospect in the recruiting class of 2002 out of The Colony, Tex., led his team to the Class 5A state semifinals as a junior, and Maryland was the first school with which he arranged an official visit.
However, Deron Williams's mother, Denise Smith, said neither she nor her son ever spoke to Gary Williams. Smith found it odd that Gary Williams was not involved at all in Maryland's efforts to recruit her son, especially considering how hands-on head coaches such as Paul Hewitt at Georgia Tech, Bill Self at Illinois and Buzz Peterson at Tennessee were in courting Deron.
"I heard [Gary Williams] was like that," said Smith, who noted that assistant coach Jimmy Patsos was Deron's only contact from Maryland. "But then it got me thinking. Deron grew up without a dad. Gary is, like, standoffish, not involved with the players. I don't think he would have been the right coach for Deron. Deron needs somebody who is more involved and communicates with him and really takes an interest in him personally."
Smith said Maryland "eliminated" Deron from consideration after the program set its sights on another point guard, John Gilchrist. She said Maryland canceled the visit shortly before it was set to commence.
Gilchrist attended Salem High in Virginia Beach and was the Virginia AAA player of the year as a junior in 2001. Gary Williams said he could only take one point guard that year and that Maryland got the one it wanted.
"A lot of people thought [Deron Williams] would be too heavy," Gary Williams said. "I didn't know [Deron] Williams was going to be that good. I don't think many people did, from what he was in high school. He was good; he was solid. But John Gilchrist was right here. Easier to recruit. Okay, so I recruited" Gilchrist.
In December 2002, Maryland hosted Florida in the first marquee game at newly opened Comcast Center. The Terrapins lost their first nonconference home game in 13 years, 69-64, in part because of the efforts of another recruit Maryland let slip away. Florida freshman forward Matt Walsh made 5 of 6 free throws in the final 23 seconds to secure the Gators' victory.
Walsh, a native of Holland, Pa., said in a recent telephone interview that he "never felt a connection with Maryland." He took one unofficial visit to College Park and found Williams to be "an introverted guy."
Maryland assistant Billy Hahn, who left after 12 seasons at Williams's side to become the head coach at La Salle following the Terrapins' appearance in the 2001 Final Four, was the point man on Walsh's recruitment. Had Hahn not departed, Walsh said there was a good chance he would have chosen to play at Maryland.
The losses of Walsh and Deron Williams caused no alarm. In addition to Gilchrist, Maryland had in its freshman class all-American Travis Garrison, All-Met Chris McCray and Nik Caner-Medley, Maine's high school player of the year.
Moreover, the Terrapins -- with Steve Blake, Drew Nicholas and Tahj Holden among those remaining from the championship team -- reached the round of 16 in the 2003 NCAA tournament. Meantime, Maryland used its recent national championship to attract highly touted players such as Mike Jones, a McDonald's all-American from Dorchester, Mass., and D.J. Strawberry, Williams's first recruit from California since he was hired at Maryland in 1989.Fleeting Optimism
While Maryland was bringing in high-profile talent from outside the region, local, less-heralded players -- the type of players who formed the core of the national championship team-- went unnoticed until the last minute.
Josh Boone grew up in Mount Airy, Md., played at South Carroll High in Sykesville, Md., and then spent one year at West Nottingham Academy in Colora, Md. Boone, a 6-foot-10 power forward, had a strong interest in playing for the Terrapins, but Maryland spoke to him just once, over the phone, shortly before he signed with Connecticut in the fall of 2002.
"You don't get every guy under the radar," said Williams, who expressed regret over not pursuing Boone harder.
At the time, missing out on Boone appeared inconsequential. Maryland capped the 2003-04 season with its first ACC tournament title in 20 years. Gilchrist, then a sophomore, claimed ACC tournament MVP honors and appeared set to lead the Terrapins to continued success.
Maryland advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament before falling, 72-70, to Syracuse. A few weeks later, Connecticut won the national championship with Boone, who started all but one game during his freshman season and was named to the Big East all-rookie team, playing a significant role.
In April 2004, Patsos was hired as head coach at Loyola College in Baltimore. He left College Park after 13 seasons as an assistant, joining Hahn as the second member of what once was a long-standing, incredibly solid recruiting corps to depart in the previous three years.
"The key was we had continuity," said Hahn, now an assistant coach at West Virginia. "We did a good job of identifying kids that Gary could relate to, that fit his system. We knew each other. We knew the strengths and weaknesses of each [assistant]. We were together for 12 years. That's a long time."
Matt Kovarik, a Maryland assistant for three years, left to join Patsos at Loyola.
In place of Patsos and Kovarik, Williams hired Mike Lonergan and Keith Booth, both of whom had strong local ties. Lonergan was the head coach at Catholic University for 12 seasons, leading the Cardinals to the Division III national championship in 2001, while Booth grew up in Baltimore and played at Maryland from 1993 to '97.
But unity among the newly formed staff was not strong. A source close to the program during the 2004-05 season described the relationships as noncohesive. The togetherness of the team was not much better. The relationship between Williams and Gilchrist deteriorated, as neither could agree on how the offense should be run. Garrison, McCray and Caner-Medley had become uneven players, regular starters but not the stars many envisioned. Strawberry, the squad's top defender, missed the second half of the season after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in late January. As a result, the Terrapins faded down the stretch.
In danger of missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1993 -- then the longest active streak in the ACC -- Maryland entered the conference tournament needing to make another run. Seemingly in the Terrapins' favor was the fact that the event was being played for the first time in the District, at what was then known as MCI Center. After years of playing in front of hostile crowds in Charlotte and Greensboro, N.C., Williams finally had his wish: the ACC tournament on his turf.
It didn't last long: In the first game of the event, ninth-seeded Clemson beat eighth-seeded Maryland for the third time that season, the Terrapins' fourth straight loss overall. The first ACC tournament in the District was barely three hours old, but Maryland had been eliminated. The streak of consecutive NCAA tournament appearances was over.
The Terrapins would advance to the semifinals of the National Invitation Tournament, but the season was viewed widely as a disappointment. Dave Dickerson, an assistant under Williams for nine seasons, left to become the head coach at Tulane, while Lonergan took the head coaching position at Vermont. Gilchrist declared for the NBA draft, but was not selected. He later signed with a pro team in Israel.
About 600 miles from College Park, Deron Williams, the guard Maryland allowed to slip away, earned second-team all-American honors while helping to lead Illinois to the national championship game.
That error in talent evaluation had become clear. Less apparent was the fact that the Terrapins were about to make the same mistake again, this time closer to home.
Scottie Reynolds, then a junior at Herndon High, was pursued by several major Division I programs, with the notable exception of the one located roughly 45 minutes away: Maryland. Gary Hall, Reynolds's high school coach, said he had numerous phone conversations with Lonergan, but he could not persuade the Maryland coaching staff to seriously consider Reynolds. He was a prolific scorer as a shooting guard, but at 6 feet, he was viewed as undersized.
Besides, Maryland had already locked up two guards whom Williams believed were better suited to his team: Montrose Christian's Greivis Vasquez and Eric Hayes of Potomac (Va.).
"We thought they were going to be our guards," Williams said. "You can't just go get a guy if you have two players who are supposed to be four-year players for you. You recruit to fill in your team."
Reynolds initially signed with Oklahoma, whose coach, Kelvin Sampson, visited Herndon three times.
"I thought Maryland would be a good fit for Scottie," Hall said. "It initially came down to his final choices of Michigan, Oklahoma and N.C. State, and naturally you would think, 'Why isn't Maryland there?' You know, you would just assume that it would be."
At the same time, Joe Alexander, a 6-8 small forward at Hargrave Military Academy, also bided his time. Alexander always had dreamed of playing for Maryland and told his teammates at Linganore High in Ijamsville that he would do so (Alexander played at Linganore during his junior and senior seasons in high school).
But Alexander was not heavily recruited by any major Division I college program, and Maryland's coaches saw him play only once, while at Hargrave in 2004 to see two of Alexander's teammates. He went on to play at West Virginia.
"If [Maryland] would have recruited me, I would have been there hands down," Alexander said. "Without question."Second Thoughts
Eleven minutes into a game Maryland had to win to avoid missing the NCAA tournament for the second consecutive season, the Terrapins trailed Boston College by 21 points in the quarterfinals of the 2006 ACC tournament. Maryland made just three of its first 15 shots.
It had been a tumultuous season. McCray, the Terrapins' leading scorer and a former All-Met shooting guard at Fairmont Heights, was declared academically ineligible midseason, almost unheard of for a senior. Garrison, a former McDonald's all-American at DeMatha, never advanced beyond an inconsistent and passive role player. Caner-Medley, once Maine's Mr. Basketball, played well down the stretch but was unable to lift his teammates anywhere near the lofty expectations with which they entered school four years earlier.
Maryland "just came off the national championship," when the recruiting class of 2002 arrived, Caner-Medley said then. "That was the goal instilled in me. It seemed natural to think that was what we were capable of doing."
The Terrapins' central problem was that the capabilities of their recruiting classes, such as Caner-Medley's, had been misjudged. Maryland fell to Boston College, 80-66, and became just the seventh team since 1980 to finish .500 or better in the ACC -- the Terrapins were 8-8 -- and not make the NCAA tournament.
On March 18, Maryland lost to Manhattan, 87-84, at Comcast Center in the first round of the NIT.
Eleven days later, at 4 a.m., Gary Hall, the Herndon coach, received a call on his cellphone from Gary Williams, who inquired about the availability of Scottie Reynolds. In the year since Reynolds committed to Oklahoma, he had developed into a McDonald's all-American point guard as a senior at Herndon.
But when Sampson left Oklahoma to take over at Indiana, Reynolds was free of his commitment. In San Diego to watch Reynolds play in the McDonald's all-American game, Hall listened as Williams made his case -- hours before Sampson's departure from Oklahoma was announced.
"Listen, I know we didn't offer Scottie early," Hall, now retired, remembered Williams saying. "Maybe we could have done a better job."
By then, it was too late. "Scottie was not interested in the University of Maryland," Hall said. Reynolds later committed to Villanova.
Reynolds's recruitment garnered little attention around the Washington area, where basketball conversation centered on one topic: George Mason. The Patriots stole the 2006 NCAA tournament spotlight with a remarkable run to the Final Four. Their run resonated even more profoundly locally because they did it with a roster composed almost entirely of players from the area.Turnover Continues
The spring of 2006 brought more upheaval to Williams's staff. Assistant coach Rob Moxley, who had been at Maryland for only one season, left to become the associate head coach at Charlotte. Citing Moxley's departure, Jeff Jones, a guard from Pennsylvania, reneged on his commitment to Maryland. "That was my big contact right there," said Jones, who went to Virginia.
With Moxley gone, Williams had to replenish his coaching staff for the fifth time in two years. He hired Chuck Driesell, son of legendary Maryland coach Lefty Driesell, to take Moxley's place. At that point, the Terrapins' coaching staff consisted of Driesell and Booth, both of whom played at Maryland, and second-year assistant Michael Adams, who played for Williams at Boston College in the 1980s.
But after Strawberry decided not to declare for the NBA draft to return for his senior season, modest optimism returned to College Park for the 2006-07 season. With Strawberry joining a stable of young guards, including Vasquez and Hayes, the Terrapins looked to return to the NCAA tournament.
Though Maryland got off to its worst start in ACC play since 1993, the Terrapins recovered to win seven straight games, including two over Duke and one over North Carolina. Even a first-round ACC tournament loss to 12th-seeded Miami could not keep Maryland out of the NCAA tournament this time.
The fourth-seeded Terrapins fell to Butler, 62-59, in the second round. With 0.6 of a second left, senior guard Mike Jones, another former McDonald's all-American, was ready to tie the game with a three-pointer. But unable to secure the inbounds pass from sophomore forward Dave Neal, Jones never got the chance, his final game ending like his College Park career, with unfulfilled promise.
The Terrapins did last one game longer in the tournament than Villanova, but optimism was running high for the Wildcats, thanks in large part to their Big East rookie of the year, Scottie Reynolds.
Once again, attention locally was on the Final Four. Behind third-year coach John Thompson III, Georgetown returned to the national semifinals for the first time since 1985. The Hoyas were led by Jeff Green, an all-Met forward from Northwestern High, a stone's throw from the Maryland campus; and Roy Hibbert, a second-team All-Met center from Georgetown Prep in North Bethesda.Perceptions of Complacency
Malcolm Delaney said he spoke to Gary Williams twice during the two years in which Maryland recruited him at Towson Catholic High, from which he graduated in 2007. The first time, at a Maryland football game, Williams offered a scholarship to the 6-2 combo guard. The second meeting took place at Towson Catholic.
"It was the same conversation," Delaney said. Williams "was just like, 'The offer is still on the table,' or whatever. We didn't get into a deep conversation."
Delaney, a Baltimore native, eventually committed to Virginia Tech and is averaging 18.5 points per game as a sophomore this season. He said that despite the efforts of several assistants, Maryland never factored into his decision.
Whereas Virginia Tech Coach Seth Greenberg developed relationships with Delaney's family members, including his grandmother, Delaney said Williams never spoke to his parents.
"I mean, they offered me a scholarship, but they didn't recruit me," Delaney said. "Let's say they didn't do too good a job. They put the offer on the table, and it was just like they kind of expected me to commit. . . . Maryland, they won the national championship. That's just how they base the program -- off that one national championship."
That championship seemed ever more distant last season, as Maryland dropped six of its last eight games and concluded the season in the NIT for the third time in four seasons. Players from the 2007-08 squad have said the camaraderie was faint and the leadership was nearly nonexistent. On March 20, the Terrapins fell at Syracuse in the second round of the NIT.
Two days later, Joe Alexander, a first-team all-Big East selection for West Virginia, led the Mountaineers to a second-round upset of second-seeded Duke at Verizon Center, the site of the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament.
The next day, Scottie Reynolds, a second-team all-Big East selection at Villanova, scored 25 points against Siena to lead the Wildcats to the round of 16, as well.'I Am Not Here to Recruit'
Maryland is attempting to reestablish its ties to the area, with mixed results. According to several Baltimore area high school and AAU coaches, Booth, in his fifth season as a Maryland assistant, has been a key factor in reviving the Terrapins' image to recruits in that city. He helped land Sean Mosley, the Baltimore player of the year as a senior at St. Frances Academy. This season, he joined Braxton Dupree and Dino Gregory, both Baltimore natives.
"I'm gonna tell you the greatest asset for Maryland was when they brought Keith Booth on as an assistant coach, because his credibility is very high with the Baltimore people," said Tony Baylor, coach of the AAU Baltimore Stars. "If he were to ever be let go, I think that would create some issues with the Baltimore community if [Maryland] is trying to get any talent out of this area. They would be wise to make sure that he stays around."
But the challenge remains in the Washington area, where Georgetown has reestablished itself. Five years after Maryland landed Garrison from DeMatha, the Hoyas signed Austin Freeman, the 2007 All-Met Player of the Year, out of the Hyattsville school.
"We recruited Freeman," Williams said. "Didn't get him. Don't know why we didn't get him. DeMatha players had not gone to Georgetown historically so we thought we had a chance."
Williams counters claims that he is uninvolved in recruiting, stating that he performs the same amount of hands-on recruiting as "everybody else." Asked if he has been satisfied with his level of direct involvement with recruits, Williams said, "Very satisfied."
But the unrest around Williams persists because of the team's struggles and the success of the players who got away. The Terrapins are 15-8 overall and 4-5 in ACC play. On Saturday, a Delaney-led Virginia Tech squad visits College Park in a contest Maryland needs to win.
Reynolds has no such concerns. He is averaging 15.4 points and 3.8 assists per game for the Wildcats, who are 20-4 and ranked No. 13 in the nation. Alexander plays for the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks. Deron Williams and Josh Boone are also in the NBA. Boone is a reserve for the New Jersey Nets, while Williams has established himself as one of the premier point guards in the league as a member of the Utah Jazz.
"Anybody can say anything they want," Gary Williams said. "I shouldn't be fired based on my record. I am not here to recruit. I am here to win basketball games. Recruiting is part of my job. But you can't say I should be fired when you look at my record."
Staff writers Josh Barr, Zach Berman and Camille Powell contributed to this report.