March 6, 2007
COLLEGE PARK The transformation that has taken place within the Maryland basketball program is nothing short of amazing.
It is about much more than winning and losing. It encompasses an attitude and an atmosphere that extends well beyond the games themselves.
As recently as early February, the prevailing sentiment surrounding Maryland basketball was negative. Every aspect of the program was under siege from fans and media. The Terrapins lost at home to Virginia on Feb. 6 to fall to 3-5 in the conference, and it appeared that a third straight trip to the NIT was inevitable.
Some fans even were calling for coach Gary Williams to step down. Seniors D.J. Strawberry, Mike Jones, Ekene Ibekwe and the rest of the team's veterans were being savaged for their alleged roles in ruining a proud program.
One month and seven straight victories later, Williams was being touted for ACC coach of the year, and the seniors were being hailed as saviors. A wise coach once said that winning cures all problems, and certainly that has been the case with the Terps.
Maryland may be the hottest team in the nation heading into the postseason. The Terps' amazing seven-game winning streak raised their RPI to No. 9 nationally and led NCAA Tournament analysts to predict no worse than a fifth seed.
Williams, the seniors and everyone else involved with Maryland basketball deserve tremendous credit for turning around this season and the entire direction of the program. Players now say that the reversal began at the tail end of that home loss to Virginia. The Terps turned up the intensity, increased the energy, and almost erased a 15-point deficit.
While many fans went into meltdown mode over what seemed a devastating loss, the coaching staff was encouraged because the players finally realized the level at which they needed to compete in order to regain the winning form the team showed earlier in the season.
"I think the last 10 minutes of the Virginia game showed what we could do when we played hard and played together," junior forward James Gist said. "We knew we had to come out and play with that type of effort from the opening tip in every game. We've been successful because we've been able to maintain the intensity for 40 minutes."
While the Virginia game was certainly a flash point within the season, the truth is that the seeds of change were sown during the offseason. Stung by missing the NCAA Tournament two seasons in a row, Williams took a long, hard look at the state of his program.
Privately, the coach will admit that some recruiting mistakes were made in the wake of Maryland's back-to-back trips to the Final Four. The Terps captured their first national championship in 2002 and moved into the palatial Comcast Center the following season.
In hindsight, it seems that those two events may have led the staff to alter its recruiting approach and pursue a different type of prospect than in the past. On paper, the likes of John Gilchrist, Nik Caner-Medley, Mike Jones and Ekene Ibekwe were higher-rated recruits than the Terps traditionally had landed. In reality, many of the players brought in between 2002 and 2004 were not the right fits for Williams' style and system.
Maryland's run of 11 straight NCAA Tournament appearances was built on the backs of recruits some heralded, many not who had the toughness to handle the demanding personality of Williams and the skills to thrive in the flex offense.
History has shown that many of the players in the two large recruiting classes of 2002 and 2003 did not have the work ethic necessary to improve, the thick skin to handle Williams' regular harangues, or the dedication to team that is so important to success.
What Williams and his staff decided after the first NIT trip was to return to the previous recruiting philosophy of finding players who were the right fits for Maryland. As in years past, pure talent became less important, and intangibles became more important, in the evaluation process.
Current freshmen Eric Hayes and Greivis Vasquez, along with junior college transfer Bambale Osby, have made an immediate impact on the program, not only through their play but also with their work ethic, enthusiasm, energy, total commitment to team, and unselfish personalities.
Williams thinks that incoming freshmen Adrian Bowie, Dino Gregory, Braxton Dupree and Shane Walker possess similar traits. None of Maryland's recent recruits has been a prep All-American, but all appear to be good fits for both Williams and his system.
BIGGEST CHANGES ABOUT ATTITUDE
Maryland's return to its blue-collar roots took time to gain a foothold. Over the course of this season, the attitudes of Osby, Hayes and Vasquez have rubbed off on the likes of Ibekwe, Jones and the other veterans, all of whom were unwittingly led astray by the underachieving 2006 senior class.
Williams saw the chemistry and cohesion that is necessary for success building in practice. That is why he wasn't as concerned as some fans when Maryland was struggling during the first half of the ACC season.
"I saw practice every day," Williams said. "We weren't playing great, obviously, but we were trying. You say things as a coach sometimes, but you don't know if it's going to happen. You say if we keep working hard we will get better. Good things will happen, but that's hard to do if you lose."
Williams was extremely emotional following the Carolina game, virtually breaking down during a post-game television interview. It was clear that he had grown weary and frustrated with the continued attacks on him and his program.
"For the loyal Maryland fans, this is our team," Williams said. "We're going to be good in the future, and we plan on being around a long time."
Evidence of Maryland's improved attitude also came through in this quote from Ibekwe, who always has been viewed as somewhat aloof and disinterested.
"We've just been playing for each other and for the team. I'm going to rebound for my team and block shots for my team," Ibekwe said. "Everyone knows their role, knows what they have to do, and we're all sharing the ball and playing good defense now."
Prior to this season, Ibekwe was considered an underachiever, and part of the problem instead of the solution. The California native's commitment to the program seemed in question when he applied for the NBA draft this past offseason. Obviously, the 6-9 forward finally has bought into the team-first philosophy and the ideals of sacrifice and commitment.
Maryland is playing its best basketball since the national championship season. This team has displayed consistency and an ability to do whatever it takes to win. The flex offense has not looked so smooth in years, and as a result the Terps have become a tough team to stop.
Maryland's improved offense is the result of a newfound unselfishness that has manifested itself in outstanding passing and improved screening. Wings such as Strawberry and Jones are getting more open looks because the big men are doing a better job of setting solid picks.
A look at the statistics will show that Maryland routinely has out-rebounded opponents and held them to low shooting percentages. Rebounding and defense are two aspects of the game that are largely controlled by effort.
There is no telling whether Maryland's current caliber of play will continue into the postseason. At present, the Terps certainly look like a team capable of winning the ACC Tournament and making a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
However it turns out, Williams always will remember 2006-07 fondly, as the season that Maryland basketball bounced back. The Terps have repaired their tattered image and given their fans renewed hope for the future.
That, in itself, is a huge victory.