Gary Williams was about as close to the disaster as you are to this column -- and when Boo Bowers collapsed, near the American University bench with 12 minutes left against Delaware six weeks ago, almost everyone assumed the Eagles' season had gone down with him.
"My first emotion?" the AU coach was saying the other day. "A nauseous feeling, in the pit of my stomach, because I'd never seen him hurt. He was so durable. He'd never missed a practice, let alone a game, with an injury. Whenever I'd draw up plays, it was always Boo at the 3 (small forward) and put in the other guys.
"So I just thought it was seriously gonna affect our team. How are you gonna replace about 28 a game? You look around. Where are we gonna get that from? It just doesn't happen."
Yet it did. Without Boo, without one of the larger cornerstones of any team at any level of basketball, AU has gone 12-2 and won at least a share of the East Coast Conference East Section regular-season ship.
Not far away, though it has seemed the other end of the college basketball spectrum at times, Maryland had eveyone back from as satisfying a season as any in the country. Unselfish and tough, stylish and also solid, the Terrapins had won the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season championship, lost the tournament title -- by a point on a controversial last-second play -- and made the NCAA East Regional semifinals.
With the same cast, older and presumably wiser, Maryland has lost as many games already as it did all last year -- and will finish no higher than a third-place tie in the ACC regular-season chase.
Why such a contrast in two teams, even on one team from one year to another? How can an AU lose its best player in eight years, the one who scored more points and grabbed more rebounds than anyone on the team last year, and go from a 13-14 record to 21-4? How can a Maryland, with two players the pros covet dearly and tow more genuine big-timers, take a sudden slide?
The how and why of sport intrigues us most. And almost nobody, save for an Auerbach here and a Wooden and Smith there, is quite certain how to explain the special chemistry of basketball. But everyone knows when the right mix of players sparkles and wrong mix smells -- and that the same mix can go sour from one year to the next.
"You recruit chemistry more than you build it," said Bullets' General Manager Bob Ferry. "Talent matters, but everyone's got to have a role -- and enjoy it. The best blend I've seen this year is Oregon State. By far. Offensively and defensively.
"I was just looking at a film of them against UCLA, and they've got role players happy to be playing 'em. (center) Steve Johnson is 50 percent more effective playing on that team than he would be on most others."
Sometimes public perceptions over-shadow reality. An honest look at Maryland, for instance, suggests it has shrunk from last year to this. How can that be, with Albert King, Buck Williams and Ernie Graham still up front?
Elementery. North Carolina has two giants it did not have most of last season. James Worthy suffered a broken ankle during the first game against Maryland a year ago and did not play the second. The Terrapins won both. With sophomore Worthy and 6-foot-9 freshman Sam Perkins, Carolina won narrowly at home and in a gallop at Maryland.
Unless one coach is clearly brighter than the other, the larger team usually wins. And in a Dean Smith-Lefty Driesell matchup invexperienced Tar Heels almost always beat veteran Terrapins.
"And Ralph Sampson is 25 percent better this year (as a sophomore)," Ferry said.
A year ago, the University of Ralph was Maryland, stifled and often surly while being unable to carry that enormous burden called potential. No team played with less enthusiasm than Virginia in the ACC tournament. And no team righted itself more spectacularly, winning the next 28 games.
A team that plays a schedule as demanding as Virginia's or Maryland's has numerous chances to regain its zest and confidence. Until recently, the ACC was the ultimate in pressure, like a college course in which you took only one exam and either got an A or an F.
The regular season was not quite pointless, but only the tournament champion advanced to the NCAA playoff. Now the ACC tournament is largly meaningless, for the teams that deserve to be in the NCAAs -- Virginia, North carolina, Wake Forest and Maryland -- will be.
Had Maryland gone through what it has this season several years ago, the players would be beside themselves -- and perhaps at themselves -- now. Going into the Virginia game Saturday in Charlottesville, they should have a good feeling about themselves.
The Terrapins have lost just one game they should have won. And although they are 3-6 in the important games that seemed even before the opening tipoff, none of the losses was to a team incapable of winning the national championship.
The Lefthander has not inspired this team so far, but anyone who has done what he has for Maryland and the area leaves on his own terms.
If Maryland's major problem was that its equals last year got better -- and neither the coaches nor the players had a way to counter that increase in talent -- AU's dramatic rise seems a bit more complex. On hindsight, skeptics will look a the Eagles' schedule and ask: who did they beat without Boo that had better players?
Maybe La Salle. Maybe St. Joseph's in Philadelphia, although its best guard was out with an injury and its own Boo, Williams, played just a minute more than half the game. Turn this around: AU probably should have beaten Navy during its Boo-less boom.
Being honest, Williams said he knew before the season his Eagles were gifted, though he thought a .500 pace reasonable without Bowers. One reason was that Boo's teams lost about as many scrimmages as they won. Williams sensed Mark Nickens would be a fine replacement -- and that the team would warm to him because of his attitude as the sixth man.
The outside shooting, especially fromEd Sloane, has been better than Williams expected; the rebounding has been spectacularly more than he anticipated. The hustle and teamwork would warm any coach's heart. And yet. . .
Sometimes a coach can be too analytical, so certain that what has worked one year is the only way to build a team that he loses his ability to bend to the available talent. Every coach who has won regularly and lost regularly knows it often is best not to think too much during times of plenty.Take the blessings, they preach, and be grateful.