Less than 24 hours after Maryland's disappointing loss to North Carolina in the ACC tournament, Gary Williams had to get away. The Terrapins' coach knew that if he stayed in his Potomac townhouse, he would be stewing nonstop, unable to get his mind off his team's second consecutive poor performance.

So six days before his team was to begin defense of its first national championship, Williams went into the office for a few hours, then drove to his Delaware beach house. He would have to drive back to the office the following morning to start preparing for the NCAA tournament, but for the time being, Williams needed a break.

Less than a year ago, Williams reached what many college coaches consider the mountaintop, standing on a platform and accepting the national championship trophy after Maryland's 64-52 victory over Indiana.

Now, though, the Terrapins have lost two straight entering Friday's first-round game against North Carolina Wilmington.

While several members of the media are picking Maryland to bounce back and make a run at a third consecutive Final Four appearance, Williams is in a familiar position. It's back to the "us against the world" rhetoric he often uses when talking about competing with North Carolina and Duke in the ACC.

"Our guys have to close the wagons," said Williams, who declined to make players available to the media, as has become customary, before the team departed yesterday for Nashville. This is when, friends and analysts say, Williams does his best work. Count him out, they say, and he will find a way to surprise you.

Privately, Williams thinks he has done one of his best coaching jobs this season, taking a team that lost four starters -- three to the NBA -- and guiding it to the NCAA tournament for the 10th consecutive season, one of only six teams that can make that claim.

"I'm as proud of going to 10 straight NCAA tournaments as I am winning one national championship," Williams said. "Seriously.

"I coached good basketball teams before I came here and I came here with the idea to build a program. Building a program isn't winning the national championship one year. It's being a consistent program that can compete against the top-level teams in the country. And we couldn't do that when I came here. Now we can. That's probably as much satisfaction as I get from what I've done here as a coach."

Williams is one of 18 active Division I coaches with 500 career victories -- a milestone he reached on March 2, two days before his 58th birthday -- but declined to speculate as to where he stands on the national coaching landscape.

"I don't judge. You don't want to lose focus," Williams said recently, hands clasped behind his head while taking a break from making notes a few minutes before he had to give a brief speech.

"During the season, you don't allow that; you don't want to change. You want to get better each year as a coach. You want to know more basketball. You want to do a better job with your players, but you don't want to change how you coach.

"I've seen some coaches win national championships and change the way they coach, change their friends and things like that. I'm not about that. Maybe because I started where I did. I didn't start as a great assistant somewhere. I started as a jayvee high school coach. . . . I think I still appreciate everything that happens."

So Williams still tries to stop drinking coffee or tea by noon because he wants to avoid caffeine. He still likes to sit alone at night and watch teams in other conferences -- they don't affect him -- to relax. He still needs the occasional breather. And he still can't sleep after losses.

"After the Virginia game, I didn't sleep," he said. "Part of it was the adrenaline, you're still up, but part of it was the urgency to get back at it. That's such a bad taste in your mouth, you want to get rid of that taste and the only way you can do that is to get back and meet with the team and start talking about the next game."

Even with that gold-and-red national championship ring, the one with the diamonds in the shape of the numeral 1, Williams never worried about his passion for coaching in games. Plotting strategy, yelling at assistants, players and officials -- that was the easy part.

"The games, that's automatic," Williams said. "That's automatic pilot."

Williams acknowledged this year he has been as fiery as ever. During more than one game, he yelled at opposing fans who were taunting him. Once, entering halftime of a home game, he angrily stomped across the court and cursed at a fan who was booing.

"When it comes down to coaching in games and practices, he still gets after it just as hard as he did when I got here," senior point guard Steve Blake said.

Practice was a different story. Games are the time for coaches and players to display their skills and compete, measuring themselves against the competition. Practice can become daily drudgery. And while Williams enjoyed nothing more than going to practice and working with his players, he was not sure if the fire still burned within, the one that allows someone to work countless hours without worrying about sleep, food or anything else.

As Williams prepared for this season, he wondered if he could be the same coach, maintain that rabid intensity.

"I didn't feel it until the first day of practice," Williams said. "There is something about walking on the court that got you down from whatever high you were on from the NCAA championship. You knew it was time. [Despite] all the other things you do as a coach nowadays, you still go back to the basics, which is walking on the court for practice, that's the most basic thing you do as a coach. To me, that's better than recruiting, better than playing games, whatever you want to talk about. That's the best part."

Williams: "Building a program isn't winning the national championship one year. It's being a consistent program that can compete against the top-level teams in the country. And we couldn't do that when I came here.