Gary Williams again gets chance to shape Maryland men's basketball in his image

Maryland student operations assistant Danny Foit straightens courtside chairs before the Terrapins' NCAA basketball exhibition game against Florida Southern on November 1. Maryland opens the season on Monday against Seattle. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst/For the Washington Post)
Maryland student operations assistant Danny Foit straightens courtside chairs before the Terrapins' NCAA basketball exhibition game against Florida Southern on November 1. Maryland opens the season on Monday against Seattle. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst/For the Washington Post)
By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 7, 2010; 11:43 PM

It was just after a whistle had blown in the early going of Maryland's Oct. 30 intrasquad scrimmage that Coach Gary Williams erupted for the first time.

"Get together! Get together!" he screamed at the Red squad for failing to huddle up at once to plot their next play. Stalking onto the court in his gym shorts, whistle around his neck and veins bulging, Williams zeroed in on Adrian Bowie.

"It's your team, Adrian!" the coach brayed at his senior point guard. "Take charge!"

Monday marks the start of Williams's 22nd season as head coach of the Maryland Terrapins. And every fall, it seems to him, there is less time to do his job properly. That job, of course, is taking a revolving cast of athletes of disparate backgrounds, talent and experience and fashioning them into a championship-contending team.

It's part art and part science; basketball alchemy, in a sense. And Williams's ability to conjure a high-performing team in short order will surely be tested this season, with Maryland needing to replace two-thirds of its starting lineup while blending in six newcomers.

The missing pieces of last season's overachieving Terps are well known. Gone are top scorer and ACC player of the year Greivis Vasquez, as well as the Terrapins' second- and third-leading scorers, Landon Milbourne and Eric Hayes. The trio accounted for 43.6 points per game among them.

Among the newcomers: Five freshmen, including one from Reykjavik, Iceland, and a 6-foot-10, 200-pound junior college transfer from the Netherlands who could just as easily end up leading the ACC in blocked shots as getting clobbered into irrelevance by the league's physical play.

The resilience of Berend Weijs was one of several unknowns as the Terrapins launched into practice Oct. 16, with roughly three weeks to find a common language and common bond before Monday's regular season tip-off against Seattle at Comcast Center.

"This will be a different team, there's no doubt about it," Williams said in a recent interview. "But I've been encouraged by what I've seen so far."

Still, most basketball prognosticators are skeptical. The ACC press corps picked the Terps to finish sixth in the conference, even though they split the 2009-10 regular season title with NCAA champion Duke. And though Maryland finished the season ranked among the top 20, it was omitted from the preseason top 25, failing to garner a single vote in the Associated Press poll.

So be it.

In his years at Maryland, Williams has come to feed on being overlooked. He finds motivation in the disrespect implied by being lightly regarded or flat-out ignored. And his Terrapins, past and present, reflect that.

"People don't have a lot of faith in us," Bowie said with a smile of the predicted sixth-place finish in the ACC, "so right now we use that as motivation. It's always been like that. But it builds your team, facing adversity."

Explains former center Dave Neal, who played for Williams from 2005 to 2009: "When I was there, we were always looked down on. But as players, you look at that and think, 'The only thing we can do is stay together as a team, listen to our coach and show people that we have potential.'

"Maryland might not have as many all-Americans as some other teams. But like Coach Williams told us: 'You can't play with just one player. We're going to show you that basketball is played with five players.' He always emphasized that the game is played with people, and we're going to get the best five out there on our team. He builds confidence and gets the guys to think that every game we go into, we have just as much chance to win as the other team."

This season's Terrapins hope their improved speed and athleticism will negate any disadvantage to the ACC's more loaded squads - Duke, regarded as the best team in the nation; North Carolina, deemed a force again with the addition of coveted freshman Harrison Barnes, a 6-7 small forward who has drawn preseason all-American honors; and Virginia Tech, which returns all five starters.

Having devoted the summer and fall to rigorous conditioning, junior guard Sean Mosley looks as if he could run for days, as does Bowie. And sophomore forward Jordan Williams, the Terrapins' force inside, is quicker and more explosive after swapping lingering baby fat for muscle.

But the overhauled Terps are riddled with more questions than answers. Which freshman point guard will have more impact: 6-1 Terrell Stoglin of Tucson, a left-hander with slick passing ability, or Oak Hill product Pe'Shon Howard, a strong, physical, 6-3 ballhandler who can shoot as well? Which senior will emerge as Maryland's leader - Bowie, Cliff Tucker or Dino Gregory? All have waited behind more gifted upperclassmen for the chance to shine. And which combination of five gives the Terps the best chance of winning?

That's what Williams has been consumed with since Oct. 16, yelling much of the while.

ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, an outspoken admirer, sees the wisdom behind Williams's methods.

"One of Gary's great strengths is that instead of thinking about how to play, which a lot of coaches waste a lot of time on, he thinks about how to win," Bilas says. "Determining how to win will lead you into how to play. Gary has certain things he believes in, as every coach does, so his teams have similarities in the way they approach things. But he'll tweak his system based upon how he thinks his team can win. That sounds like a small thing, but it's not."

And Williams's players see the passion behind his methods.

"He challenges us," says Bowie, who's working on his assertiveness as the team's floor general. "He yells. He gets up in your face. And depending how you handle it, you can tell the difference between who is mentally tough and who's not. When it gets tight in games, you're going to need somebody who is mentally tough."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company