March 25, 2008
COLLEGE PARK Another disappointing season has come to an end, and where does that leave the Maryland basketball program? Not headed in a positive direction, that's for sure.
Three trips to the NIT in the last four years is certainly not what anyone expected after Maryland reached the pinnacle of college basketball by capturing the national championship in 2002. It certainly is a major downer for a program that earned 11 straight NCAA bids (1994-2004) not long ago.
What went wrong to cause a proud program to become so mediocre?
There are many reasons, from tremendous turnover among assistant coaches to multiple mistakes on the recruiting trail. Ultimately, it mostly comes down to talent, and the Terrapins simply haven't been good enough to win enough games to warrant NCAA bids.
No fair-minded observer will ever question coach Gary Williams' ability to teach and develop players. When it comes to pure coaching, he is considered among the best in the business.
However, fans have every right to question Williams as a recruiter, because Maryland's overall strategy, implementation and evaluation in that crucial area has been severely lacking over the last six years.
One need look only at this year's roster to see that Maryland is bringing knives to a gun fight with regard to competing at the top of the ACC. The Terrapins did not have a single player who was rated among the top 50 in the nation as a high school senior by PrepStars.com.
Williams has made a living off finding underrated prospects and turning them into All-ACC caliber performers. However, not even a coach as experienced as Williams can win consistently with a team comprised entirely of sleepers.
Frankly, the fact that Williams managed to coax this year's contingent onto the NCAA bubble was a minor miracle. In years past, Maryland could sleep-walk for 40 minutes and still beat the mid-major patsies that often dominate the non-conference schedule. This year, the Terrapins were simply out-played in embarrassing losses to Virginia Commonwealth, Ohio and American.
That Williams was able to get this club to compete harder and perform at a higher level to the point of winning six of seven ACC games at one point was a real credit to his coaching ability. However, he was squeezing blood out of a stone, while riding the heck out of his starters, and the Terps simply wore down at season's end.
In the aftermath of Maryland's second-round NIT loss to Syracuse, Williams talked about the need for Maryland to get faster, stronger, quicker and more physical. He said the Terps were probably the slowest team in the ACC, and one of the weakest as well.
Whose fault is that? Did Williams think he could recruit slow players and turn them into gazelles? Did he think he could teach quickness?
Sophomores Eric Hayes and Greivis Vasquez are what they are taller-than-average guards with below-average foot speed. The plodding backcourt explains why Maryland had trouble staying in front of opposing guards on the defensive end or getting past them on the offensive end.
Williams is hoping to address that problem with the signing of Hutchinson Junior College prospect Bobby Maze, an Allen Iverson look-alike who is alleged to have the same caliber of quickness. There is no question that the Terps desperately need a ball-handler who can break down the defense.
If Maze proves to be the real deal and moves right into the starting lineup, where does that leave Hayes? Vasquez could move to his natural position of wing guard, where he may become more effective. Ideally, Hayes would become a top-notch backup, capable of playing both guard spots. However, it seems unlikely that he would be satisfied in that role for the next two seasons, and thus the transfer rumors have begun.
Williams addressed the strength and physicality problems in another era of Maryland basketball.
After the Terps were pushed around and out-muscled by Ron Artest and St. John's in the Sweet 16 in 1999, Williams hired Kurtis Shultz as the team's strength and conditioning coordinator. Shultz, a former Maryland basketball player, succeeded in turning the Terrapins into a more muscular outfit, and that was evident during the program's back-to-back Final Four appearances.
Shultz left the program in 2002, and his successors clearly have not been able to duplicate his success. Maryland steadily has regressed to being one of the weakest, least physical teams in the ACC. The Terps were beaten to loose balls and on the backboards routinely, and they often were the team with bodies strewn across the floor.
"We've got to have the younger guys step up and get stronger physically," Williams said. "We also need guys to make a commitment to be basketball players 365 days a year."
PROBLEM: WORK ETHIC OR STYLE?
That may well be true, but Maryland fans also would like to see Williams and the rest of the coaching staff make a commitment to getting better players.
Bring in a handful of top-50 prospects, and watch how quickly the concerns about quickness and strength go away. It all starts with getting big-time ballplayers with the ability to succeed in all areas of the game, and the Terrapins simply do not have enough of them.
That once again inspires the question: Why would a program with the history and tradition of Maryland struggle so mightily to land top-tier talent?
The Terps are one of only four schools in the ACC to capture a national championship. They play in the sparkling Comcast Center, one of the largest and finest facilities in college basketball. College Park is located between Baltimore and D.C., two major urban areas loaded with basketball talent.
There is really no legitimate excuse for why Maryland constantly settles for second- and third-tier recruits. Some (including many in the recruiting industry) say Williams doesn't work hard enough on the recruiting trail, a charge he denies vehemently. Others whisper that his biggest downfall is his unwillingness to cheat (or even skirt the rules) and/or play ball with the AAU coaches and street agents who deliver many top players these days.
Wherever the truth lies, the situation needs fixing. Either that or the Terps are likely to remain a second-tier program in the ACC, with more NIT bids than NCAA trips in their immediate future, as in their recent past.