A Season On the Blink

Sean Mosley, left, and the Terrapins are struggling. The latest evidence: a second-half slide and a loss to Josh Southern and Boston College.
Sean Mosley, left, and the Terrapins are struggling. The latest evidence: a second-half slide and a loss to Josh Southern and Boston College. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
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Wednesday, January 28, 2009; Page E01

You always know when Gary Williams has gone into bunker-down mode after the words "I've coached here for 20 years, long before anyone else was here" tumble from his tightly pursed lips. He said them last night, following up with, "Nobody was here 20 years ago."

Judge me fairly, Maryland's increasingly embattled coach is saying. That's at least what I deserve.

If you're going to take into account that the Terrapins threw away a game they all but had won in the first half at Comcast Center, if a meltdown against Boston College becomes a key catalyst for Maryland missing the NCAA tournament for the fourth time in five years, then also remember this before the Williams era ends:

Hardship isn't trying to get Greivis Vasquez and a very untalented Division I team to play hard, smart and skillful for 40 minutes; hardship is having less talent those first four years, when the probation he inherited doomed Maryland's Final Four dreams. Remember, too, that those aspirations -- and a national title -- were incredibly realized seven years ago -- no matter how long ago that seems from last night's latest harbinger of a hurting program.

A year ago March, after Maryland somehow gave back a 20-point lead to Clemson in 11 surreal minutes here, Johnny Holliday, the team's longtime play-by-play announcer, said confidently underneath the Comcast Center stands: "Gary will find a way to turn it around. He always does."

In point of fact, that's been the perverse thrill of driving to College Park for more than five years now, to see if America's back-to-the-wall team and its forever-tortured coach can crawl out of the grave they've dug for themselves.

For years, Williams has cultivated this "Us Against the World" mentality that crystallizes his program. When Juan Dixon, Lonny Baxter and Steve Blake bought in, that beautiful trophy in 2002 was theirs.

But now the world is winning. The late rallies are being staged by the team wearing the other color jerseys, and even if you want to convince yourself all the calls are still going against them, it's tough for the Terrapin faithful to muster much rancor because it doesn't matter any more.

Swaths of empty sections at Comcast Center abounded last night, some of it because of the snow and ice and some of it because this past Saturday Duke demoralized Maryland, inexplicably routing a Williams-coached team -- usually a tough out at Cameron Indoor Stadium -- by 41 points.

Once, people had to accumulate enough Terrapin Points in the form of athletic department support just for the right to buy tickets for the men's games; now, they're selling single-game seats for some ACC games. And from the looks of things, weather notwithstanding, not that many people want to buy them.

When the Terrapins dig out like they did in 2007, a return trip to the NCAA tournament, their season and Williams's reputation as a college basketball pillar -- not just a lifer trying to hang on in a changing environment he no longer recognizes -- is saved.

When they throw it away and go all NIT on everyone, as they did in 2005, 2006 and last season after that devastating loss to Clemson, the whispers turns to chatter and the chatter turns to genuine conversation about how much longer this can go on.

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