Feb. 23, 1980. Cole Field House.
Lefty Driesell was surrounded by members of the media moments after his team had defeated Virginia, 82-71. How had he done it, he was asked? How had he taken a team picked for sixth in the ACC and won the regular-season title and ease? And, they asked, "What's wrong with Virginia?"
Driesell, knowing his old pupil, Virginia Coach Terry Holland, was under fire in the locker room across the hall, defended him. "Why don't y'all get off Terry's back," Driesell said. "He's doin' a heck of a job. Hell, he's won 19 games and y'all are bugging him to death. Why don't you let up?"
Feb. 28, 1981. University Hall, Charlottesville.
The same two teams with the same coaches and virtually the same players will meet again today (WJLA-TV-7). Only this time, Holland is surrounded by admirers, Driesell by detractors. A Maryland victory would change that, but there is irony in the fact that the two teams and coaches could go through such a role reversal in one year.
Virginia's improvement is not that mysterious.
But all year long people have asked, "What's wrong with the Terps?" They have questioned Driesell's ability to motivate, his strategy, his use of players. Driesell has gone from prince to pauper because his team has won two fewer games at this stage of 1981 than it had won in 1980. h
The key word in both stories is expectations. Last year, when Ralph Sampson enrolled, big things were immediately predicted for the Cavaliers.They were ranked as high as second in preseason polls. This year's Maryland team, with all starters back, was picked as high as No. 1.
Anything less connotes failure. Good was not good enough.
"I think we all expected a lot coming into the season," said Albert King, whose average has dropped from 21.5 to 18.4 points a game. "Because we were so good last year, we just assumed we would be very good this year. You can never assume anything in college basketball, though, especially in the ACC. We've played pretty good, we just haven't played great."
Driesell has speculated that his team was overrated in preseason. But the preseason rating was based on performance, not potential.
"Sometimes having everybody back isn't an advantage," Driesell said. "They get lazy, start believing all their clippings. You can preach to 'em and preach to 'em you have to keep working to win. But it's hard to make them believe."
Everyone at Maryland, from Driesell down, fell into that trap early. The Terps were sluggish in December victories over weak opposition. King especially was clearly disinterested, uninvolved in the offense, rarely looking to shoot.
"I ain't worried about Albert," Driesell kept saying, "he'll be ready when the big games roll around."
Only he wasn't. King could not turn it on when it counted and only lately has shown flashes of 1980 when he was one of the top five players in the country.
At the same time Driesell kept toying with his point guard situation, trying to pretend it wasn't a problem. Reggie Jackson and Dutch Morley played musical chairs with the job. Neither developed any confidence because one bad move earned a seat beside Driesell. At the same time Driesell gave no playing time to Steve Rivers, who had the quickness the other two lacked.
In January, Driesell tried Ernest Graham at point guard -- a disaster. He tried Greg Manning briefly and succeeded in weakening two positions, the point and Manning's wing guard spot.
By the time of the Carolina debacle two weeks ago, the Terps were a confused, angry group. Their own fans were booing them and, naturally, Driesell was catching much of the flak.
Driesell, buoyed by two straight victories, blasted all his critics, some real, some imagined, two days ago. Just as Holland started seeing enemies behind every pencil last year, Driesell has reached the point of calling people on the phone who write critical letters to the newspapers.
But that is part of being in the ACC. Because all the teams live under a microscope, coaches and players on teams not living up to expectations begin jumping at shadows.
"You just learn after a while that the only ones you can depend on are the 15 guys on the team and the coaches," said Ernest Graham. "The rest comes and goes depending on whether you're winning or not."
The Terps have won slightly less this year because they had less to prove than last season. The losses, added to the expectations, have put them under considerable pressure.
Even if the Terps lose today, they are still in the NCAA tournament, which, after all, is what matters. But if they lose, even to the No. 3 team in the country, the "what's wrong?" questions will start again.
"It isn't so much that things have been wrong, it's just that EVERYTHING was supposed to be right," Jackson said. "But it isn't just the fans who have gotten down on us because we've lost, it's us too.
"But we know we can still salvage the thing if we get our act together in the tournament and the NCAAs. If we do that, people will forget February, they'll just talk about March. That's what counts."
Today is Feb. 28. No one is happier to see the month end than the Terps.
It has been a long month, a long year. They have come a long way from Cole Field House last February. It is a trip all of them would like to forget.