February 14, 2005 COLLEGE PARK Coach Gary Williams and the Maryland basketball team seemingly have more lives than an alley cat. Every time fans and media give the Terrapins up for dead, they rise up from the ashes like a phoenix.
Embarrassing blowouts at the hands of North Carolina and Wake Forest were followed by uplifting upsets of Duke and Georgia Tech. Devastating losses to Clemson and Miami were wiped away by resounding victories over Virginia Tech and Duke.
On several occasions this season, diehard fans have sworn the Terrapins were NIT-bound. Now a 12th straight NCAA Tournament appearance seems all but inevitable, although there is still plenty of work to be done.
This is not the first time this has happened in College Park. There have been roller-coaster seasons under Williams before, and every time the Terps have found a way to squeeze out just enough wins to get an NCAA bid.
That's probably why Williams wasn't worried in the wake of the consecutive road losses to Clemson and Miami, which left Maryland with mediocre records of 13-7 overall and 4-5 in the ACC. He pointed out that things looked more bleak on Feb. 28, 2004, when the Terps were 14-11 overall and 5-9 in league play.
Yet Williams would be the first to admit that the inconsistency of this year's team has been maddening. At times, these Terps have resembled the squad that played so brilliantly for three days last March, en route to capturing the first ACC title of the Williams era. At other times, this team has played as poorly as any in the coach's 16-year tenure in College Park.
What's most disturbing is that there seems to be little rhyme or reason for the highs and lows. Maryland will hit on all cylinders one night, then look totally out of sync the next. The key to this squad's success or failure seems to be something as basic as playing with passion and emotion.
Maryland clearly did not come to play on the night it suffered a miserable and shocking loss to lowly Clemson. Looking dead-legged and in a daze, the Terps fell behind 10-0 right off the bat, and that was pretty much all she wrote.
It was a completely different story on Feb. 8 at the Comcast Center, as Maryland came out with a ton of energy against Virginia Tech and seized control from the outset.
"We ran good offense, especially in the first five minutes," junior guard Chris McCray said. "That's when we had been slacking, at the start of games."
"The biggest thing tonight was our intensity level for 40 minutes. We never let up," Williams said. "We can be pretty good when we play like that for an entire game. Too often this season, we've had stretches when we did not play with any intensity."
Williams often is criticized, fairly at times, for his coaching strategies and apparent unwillingness to change things. However, the stubborn mentor has been forced to be creative and unconventional this season, and he's shown that he's not afraid to shake things up.
What's also clear is that Williams is not afraid to pull players who are not performing well. Nobody, not even volatile star point guard John Gilchrist, is sacred on this team. While the coach's bench options have become limited, thanks to the midseason transfer of center Hassan Fofana and the season-ending knee injury of guard D.J. Strawberry, Williams has been willing to use anyone and everyone depending on the situation.
Many eyebrows were raised when Williams inserted seldom-used swingman Mike Grinnon early in the Virginia Tech game, but the savvy senior responded with hustle and strong defense in a career-high 12-minute performance.
Maryland has gotten similarly solid contributions from sophomore center Will Bowers, junior point guard Sterling Ledbetter and freshman forward James Gist at various times. Even his detractors must admit that Williams has used the bench wisely, moving players in and out of the lineup depending on game situations and matchups.
Following the Miami loss, Williams bemoaned the fact that Maryland has struggled to get "five guys" playing well at the same time. In the games where Gilchrist and forward Nik Caner-Medley step up, McCray and forward Travis Garrison disappear. Next time out, it's the opposite.
Maryland may have put forth its most complete effort of the season in the overtime upset of Duke at the Comcast Center. The Terps placed six players in double figures for the first time and got strong rebounding across the board.
While happy, Williams was reluctant to get too excited about the performance, probably because he has seen how quickly things can go the other way. This is a Maryland team that still has not established a firm identity and remains quite capable of going back in the tank and playing lousy on the road versus N.C. State and Virginia.
It has become clear that the key to Maryland's offense is getting Caner-Medley and McCray good shots. When those two score, the flex runs much more smoothly, and opportunities open up for others.
Williams has coaxed increased production from both wing players by urging them not to settle for perimeter shots. Caner-Medley has been quite effective posting up, using his strength and body control to get off shots. McCray has done a better job of taking the ball to the basket and using screens to get mid-range jumpers.
Both McCray and Caner-Medley finally have begun scoring off the little curl play that is a staple of Maryland's offense and was used so successfully by the likes of Steve Francis, Juan Dixon and Drew Nicholas in recent years.
Jones Finding Crucial Bench Role
Talented sophomore Mike Jones seems to have found a niche as an explosive scorer off the bench. The 6-5 swingman averaged 14 points during the three-game stretch against Miami, Virginia Tech and Duke.
What's most encouraging is that the former McDonald's All-American got his points in a variety of ways. He canned four three-pointers in scoring 14 points versus Miami, then used some nifty post moves to shoot six-for-six against Virginia Tech. He scored inside and outside in cramming 15 points into 18 minutes of action versus Duke.
"There's no question that Mike Jones has become instant offense for us," Williams said. "When he gets hot, he can really fill it up in a hurry."
After the Duke game, Williams went out of his way to praise the defensive effort of Jones, who actually covered J.J. Redick for a brief stretch. To this point in his career, Jones' defense has been mostly poor to horrendous.
"What you are seeing," Williams said, "is Mike Jones developing into a complete player."
Friedgen Promotes Long-Time Aide
Maryland football coach Ralph Friedgen showed loyalty and respect by tabbing John Donovan as the team's new running backs coach, rather than going outside the program for a big name.
Donovan has worked with Friedgen for seven seasons, first as a graduate assistant at Georgia Tech from 1998-2000, then as the assistant recruiting coordinator at Maryland from 2001-04. The former Johns Hopkins (Division III) player had paid his dues and deserved a chance to become a full-time coach.
"John is a very bright guy who knows our offense as well as anyone," Friedgen said. "John has also been involved with our recruiting efforts, and I expect he'll do a good job in that area as well."
Perhaps Friedgen has learned an important lesson. His hiring of his old friend Bill O'Brien from Georgia Tech in 2003, while a smart move in itself, contributed directly to the departure of ace recruiting coordinator Mike Locksley for Florida. Locksley correctly believed that O'Brien was being groomed for the offensive coordinator role at Maryland for whenever Charlie Taaffe departed, and that was a spot Locksley wanted for himself. Interestingly, both O'Brien (Duke) and Locksley (Illinois) are coordinators now, although neither is in College Park. Taaffe, of course, remains with the Terps.
Everyone knows the importance of quality coaches, especially in the coordinator roles, but it's good for staff morale to promote from within and reward those who have worked hard.