Trailing 13-2 in the second game of the 2002 Final Four, Coach Gary Williams was prepared to chastise his Maryland team, but a senior barked first. Before players reached the sideline during the first television timeout, Juan Dixon got a hold of each teammate, clenching jerseys while he spoke, then returned to the court to score 10 of his team's next 13 points.
Williams needs only to reference that inside-the-huddle moment in Atlanta to provide a valuable lesson in leadership for his current players, whose success will largely hinge on whether they play well together and are capable of grabbing a jersey or two when needed.
"I want somebody to start grabbing people and say, 'This isn't good. We have to do something,' " said Williams, whose team opens the season tonight against Fairleigh Dickinson. "There are a lot of things in basketball that are not necessarily skill things. There is emotion. There is attitude. All those things mean something. And for players today, that's a tougher sell . . . that you have to bring that to the team, too, as well as your ability to shoot or play defense."
Williams believes he has the requisite experience in seniors Chris McCray, Nik Caner-Medley and Travis Garrison, who have started a combined 202 games the past three seasons and have embraced the role. But after a season in which leadership was at times absent, whether the seniors can galvanize the team under trying circumstances remains a critical question.
Consider Maryland's first open scrimmage last month, during which the team wearing black jerseys fell behind 18-3. Williams stopped action, gathered the losing players and implored them to show "emotion" and "heart." Then he told them to compete as if someone had hit them with a baseball bat, challenging four players to fight back and the fifth, Garrison, to ignite the fuse.
Williams does not fault the seniors for past shortcomings on the leadership front. After all, there were no seniors who logged significant minutes on last year's roster to provide a standard from which to learn.
"Nobody would say the things we were doing wrong," Garrison said. "When we came as freshmen, Steve Blake and Drew Nicholas, those guys would bring us to the side and tell us what we were doing wrong. So it's our turn."
Some within last year's program said Maryland did not possess a player who would stand up to John Gilchrist, the player most often blamed for disrupting overall chemistry. What's more, there was too much "individual play," Williams said. And both McCray and Caner-Medley acknowledged trying to take over games too much when the half-court offense broke down. The result: exclusion from the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1993.
"It was pretty clear they had a player last year that was in a high profile position who wasn't committed to the team," ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said. "When you don't have a cohesive team approach, your results are not going to be as good as your talent level. And when you have a committed group effort, then your results can be better than your talent level. It's a complicated process, but at the same time it's pretty simple. Are you committed to what you're doing, or are you just committed to yourself?"
Maryland is not the only ACC school that has struggled with the absence of a strong senior presence. North Carolina's talented group of three underclassmen never won more than 19 games before winning the national championship last year as juniors. And Duke's four seniors have made the Blue Devils the overwhelming choice as the nation's top team.
"That's one of the things about early-entry; that's one of the reasons why you have more individualistic stuff happening at the next level," Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said of players leaving early for the NBA. "A lot of kids never learn how to become leaders. You're usually not a leader as a freshman or sophomore. You're definitely not a leader coming out of high school."
To that end, Williams said players switch summer traveling teams so often now "sometimes you don't come into college with what you wear across your chest is that important. But that's why seniors can be important nowadays. You start really caring about the team once you've been there a while, if you're any kind of a player."
Players said they are closer off the court than they have been. They hang out more and even went to McCray's house for a feast his mother prepared during the summer. The seniors say they are in the best condition of their lives, an ethic they believe translated to younger teammates.
"Leadership is doing something worthy of somebody following," Caner-Medley said. "Nothing you can really point to and say, 'I'm a leader because of this.' If you're playing hard defense, teammates look over and follow. It's not always the leading scorers. It's someone who is going to bring it every day."
Such messages are more powerful when they come from a respected teammate rather than from a coach, Williams said.
"You're not the bad guy all the time," Williams said. "I'm always on them to play hard, do this, do that. Well, you're the coach. You're supposed to do that. Guys don't like to get yelled at all the time. They don't look at it as getting yelled at if it's another player."
That rings true for criticism as well as positive reinforcement.
For instance, at the end of the first half of Maryland's first exhibition game, freshman Dave Neal made a seemingly inconsequential steal right before the buzzer sounded. Caner-Medley initially raced by Neal en route to the locker room, then stopped, reversed footing and made sure to high-five him.
It wasn't a Dixon-esque jersey tug, but the preseason gesture will suffice.
"That," Garrison said, "is our job as seniors."