By Eric Prisbell
November 22, 2006
COLLEGE PARK -- Talk to Gary Williams and it usually doesn't take the Maryland coach long to reference Juan Dixon and Steve Blake, two of his favorite former players. They not only won a lot while wearing Terrapins uniforms, but they represent a happier time for Williams at his alma mater.
Five years after Dixon and Blake led Maryland to the national title, many fans have become restless, wondering why the team did not reach the NCAA Tournament the past two seasons, much less contend for the championship. Off-court troubles and on-court struggles have placed the spotlight on Williams, who enters an important season in which the Terps look to change the perception that their program is on the decline.
"I've won 500-and-whatever games and a national championship, and all that is great," said Williams, who entered his 18th season at Maryland with 560 Division I victories. "But this is now. In people's minds, you have to win. That's OK. I accept that challenge."
Winning 19 games would be considered a success at many programs, but not at Maryland, which reached 11 straight NCAA Tournaments from 1994-2004. Williams understands that coaches, perhaps more than ever, are judged on their last game or season, regardless of whether they have won a national title.
He recalled a conversation he had with another successful coach under scrutiny, Kentucky's Tubby Smith, who recounted the story about fans who placed a for-sale sign near his house after the Wildcats lost to Vanderbilt. For Williams, criticism comes in the form of letters or phone calls from those who are upset that the Terrapins have not met expectations that Williams took years to establish when he rebuilt the program.
With George Mason making last year's Final Four, and Georgetown expected to challenge for this season's national title, Maryland has lost some footing as the D.C. area's premier program. The Terps were predicted by the ACC's media to finish seventh in a conference that received only four NCAA Tournament bids last year.
When asked whether this season can be viewed as successful if Maryland does not return to the NCAA Tournament, Williams said, "I don't know. I have to see how the year goes."
The hopes of the past two seasons were derailed by the unexpected. The Terrapins were on track to reach the past two NCAA Tournaments before losing key players in January of both seasons. Two years ago, D.J. Strawberry, the team's sixth man and best on-ball defender, underwent season-ending knee surgery. Last year, Chris McCray, the team's co-captain and leading scorer, was ruled academically ineligible. Maryland rallied to finish 8-8 in the league, in what Williams feels was one of his best coaching jobs, but missed the tournament again.
An opening-round loss to Manhattan in the National Invitation Tournament was a fitting end to a season in which Maryland received plenty of negative attention. In addition to McCray's academic problems, two players (McCray and Travis Garrison) were arrested. The charges against McCray later were dropped, but the incidents created further distraction.
That is why Williams has been intent on avoiding such issues this year. During the season's introductory news conference, he said his players would be "good citizens and student-athletes." While addressing the crowd after an intrasquad scrimmage, he spoke about the importance of players interacting with the student body and acting as role models.
"I've done it before, but I've never done it publicly," Williams said. "After what happened last year, I want them to be representatives of the school and friends to the students on campus. I want them to understand that you have a responsibility to be one of the leaders on campus, whether you want to or not."
This also will be the first season in which Williams will not determine how his players are disciplined if they miss class. Beginning this fall, new class attendance rules drafted by the university's Athletic Council went into effect for all of Maryland's sports teams.
"We lacked discipline last year," Strawberry said. "That's a leader's job. I've talked to the coaches, and they want me to step up and help the younger guys. It started off the court. We handled everything from the classroom to the social stuff."
On the court, Williams wants to get back to playing the way he has been most successful. Gone are the final remnants of the recruiting class (McCray, Garrison, Nik Caner-Medley, John Gilchrist), largely underachievers in College Park, that enrolled in the aftermath of the program's NCAA championship.
Six seniors dot this year's roster, led by returning starters Strawberry, guard Mike Jones and forward Ekene Ibekwe. The careers of all three players have been marked by growing pains and disappointment, although they looked improved early this season.
Meanwhile, the addition of five new faces and first-year assistant Chuck Driesell, son of former Maryland coach Lefty Driesell, indicates that this year is more about a new beginning.
If nothing else, Maryland should improve at point guard because it has more options. Strawberry had trouble running the team last year, but the Terrapins had no legitimate alternative. This season, Strawberry will see the bulk of his time at his more natural positions of shooting guard and small forward, because of the arrivals of freshman guards Eric Hayes and Greivis Vasquez.
Hayes, the son of a high school coach, already has drawn comparisons to Blake because of his slender physique. Vasquez, a native of Venezuela, has what teammates call an "international swagger" and plays with the kind of emotion Williams encourages.
Vasquez said the newcomers have sent an indirect message to the upperclassmen by showing up at practice early. They want to show the seniors what level of commitment and energy is needed to return to the NCAA Tournament.
"We are definitely trying to get some enthusiasm in here," Hayes said. "That's something we need to get back to the tournament."
Defense is the other point of emphasis. No ACC school allowed more points per game last year than Maryland. Williams said it was the worst defensive team he can remember coaching. Opponents routinely drained open three-pointers against the Terrapins. Perimeter defense was poor in part because Maryland's players often had to provide help inside.
Defense is an aspect of the game that Williams feels players have to buy into, a reflection of their effort. One of the problems the coach often cites with his past two teams is that too many players thought it was their right to play in the NCAA Tournament because they played for Maryland. To that end, several players, including Strawberry, said that when they signed with the Terps they figured they automatically would challenge for the national championship every year.
This season, they say that sense of entitlement is gone, and they will earn it. As Williams put it, "We have to prove that we're good again," a sentiment echoed by his best player.
"Nobody is going to give you anything because you're Maryland," Strawberry said. "They want to beat you because you're Maryland, because you were up and now you're down. They want to keep you down. People were taking shots at us, saying we're not going to do anything, and that we're not that good this year. It's about pride."
Year ACC Overall Postseason
1997 9-7 (4) 21-11 NCAA 1st Round
1998 10-6 (3) 21-11 NCAA Sweet 16
1999 13-3 (2) 28-6 NCAA Sweet 16
2000 11-5 (2) 25-10 NCAA 2nd Round
2001 10-6 (3) 25-11 NCAA Final Four
2002 15-1 (1) 32-4 NCAA Champion
2003 11-5 (2) 21-10 NCAA Sweet 16
2004 7-9 (6x) 20-12 NCAA 2nd Round
2005 7-9 (6) 19-13 NIT Final Four
2006 8-8 (6) 19-13 NIT 1st Round
x -- won ACC title
Name Ht./Wt. Pos. Class
Will Bowers 7-1/262 C Sr.
Parrish Brown 6-1/175 PG Sr.
Ekene Ibekwe* 6-9/220 BF Sr.
Mike Jones* 6-5/204 WG Sr.
D.J. Strawberry* 6-5/201 WG Sr.
James Gist* 6-8/223 BF Jr.
Bambale Osby 6-8/250 C Jr.
Dave Neal 6-7/255 BF So.
Jerome Burney 6-9/210 C Fr.
Eric Hayes 6-3/175 PG Fr.
Landon Milbourne 6-7/205 WF Fr.
Greivis Vasquez 6-5/195 WG Fr.
- -- returning starter
D.J. Strawberry has been a solid contributor throughout his four-year career. The versatile and athletic 6-5 swingman is a demon defender whose ability to force turnovers and turn them into easy layups provides a major spark. Strawberry played out of position at point guard last season, out of necessity. With his return to his natural wing spot, he should have a huge season. Guard Mike Jones is a tremendous perimeter shooter who steadily has improved other aspects of his game. He gained tremendous confidence toward the end of last season and seems poised for a break-out campaign. Almost the same words could be used for forward Ekene Ibekwe, who is wildly talented but wildly inconsistent. He typically mixes spectacular dunks and blocks with ridiculous shots and passes, but there are signs he's ready to put it all together, too.
Other Key Returnees
Forward James Gist is a jumping jack who can dunk, rebound and block shots. He spent the summer honing his post moves and working to become more of an offensive threat. According to coach Gary Williams, no player improved more in the offseason than 7-1 center Will Bowers, one of the tallest players in the ACC. Bowers gained strength, refined his footwork and appears capable of becoming more of a contributor. Parrish Brown proved last year that he's a capable backup point guard -- a solid handler, OK shooter and tough defender.
Maryland's hopes for significant improvement rest with a pair of talented guards: Eric Hayes and Greivis Vasquez. They must share the point guard duties and use their outstanding ball skills to help the Terps run a more efficient offense. Hayes is a pure point who thinks pass-first, but he also has proven he can knock down open three-pointers. He's a heady and intelligent playmaker who makes good decisions. Vasquez, a Venezuela native, plays with tremendous flair and energy. The 6-5 combo guard loves to make fancy passes and slick open-court moves, but he has a game grounded in proper fundamentals. He's a strong driver and finisher who also has shown an ability to make open jumpers. By far the biggest surprise addition has been juco forward Bambale Osby. He is a rarity in that he wants to play with his back to the basket and do the dirty work of setting screens, playing post defense and grabbing rebounds. He has provided the Terps with much-needed inside toughness. Forward Landon Milbourne is an athletic lefty with a decent mid-range jumper and great hops. Center Jerome Burney, who has a massive wingspan and is considered an outstanding shotblocker, may redshirt this season.
ALSO Worth Noting
Osby is an off-beat character who drives around campus in a vintage Cadillac and wears his hair in an old-style Afro. He answers to "Bam Bam" and plays with a bull-in-a-china-shop mentality. ... Ibekwe, who declared for the 2006 NBA draft, then withdrew at the last minute, played for the Nigerian national team in the FIBA World Championships this summer.
Chart By: The Maryland Insider