Maryland is the latest stop in Seth Davis' tour of college hoops camps.
COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- "Here's what makes me proud," Terps coach Gary Williams said as we stood in a hallway in Maryland's gleaming, 17,000-seat Comcast Center. Williams and I were looking at an awesome wall display featuring the center of the actual court on which the Terrapins won the 2002 NCAA championship. Engraved in plastic was a copy of that year's tournament bracket, showing that Maryland had to go through Kentucky, Connecticut, Kansas and Indiana to win the title. "All those schools had won championships," Williams said. "But we hadn't yet."
That message -- Nobody talked about us being as good as those guys, but we showed 'em -- is quintessential Williams. Even his fondest memories are tinged by the infamous inferiority complex that continues to drive him. Another quintessential moment occurred at the beginning of Monday's practice, when Williams reminded his players that they were picked to finish fifth by the ACC's writers during the league's media day Sunday. "I don't like being picked fifth," Williams said, "even if it was by a bunch of guys from North Carolina."
But then, as Maryland proved on its rigorous road to the 2002 title, Williams' teams tend to perform their best when they feel a bit inferior. This year's squad should have no problem feeling that way coming off last season's implosion, when the Terps lost five of their last six games and failed to make the NCAA tournament for the first time in 11 years. As I mentioned in my 20 Questions column earlier this month, it's not fair to completely blame former point guard John Gilchrist for the Terps' troubles, but there's no doubt Maryland will be better without him. With the group Williams has coming back, it's hard to imagine Maryland missing out on the NCAAs again, much less finishing in the bottom half of the ACC.
There are a lot of reasons I like Maryland. The Terps are rife with experience. This team includes four seniors, five juniors and one of the newcomers, 6-1 point guard Parrish Brown, is a junior college transfer.
This is also going to be one of the biggest and deepest teams Williams has had in College Park. Imagine trying to score against a lineup that includes 6-5 D.J. Strawberry playing point guard, 6-8 Nik Caner-Medley at shooting guard, 6-8 sophomore James Gist on the wing, 6-9 Ekene Ibekwe at power forward and 7-1 Will Bowers at center. With more size and speed coming off the bench, Maryland will do a lot more pressing and trapping this year. The Terps worked on their fullcourt D for much of Monday's practice.
I also have to believe that last year's debacle taught this group the importance of chemistry, unselfishness and, most of all, toughness. The Terps are a long way from being as tough as they need to be -- most of Williams' outbursts in practice were focused on that deficiency -- but they're getting there. And Williams, who is usually the last person to talk up his own team, seemed especially excited. As we ate lunch at Bentley's Pub, he talked eagerly about the approaching season. "This is the first time in three years we've had more than one senior," he said. "They're not real tough yet, but they're practicing hard so far. Last year, we wouldn't play hard all the time in practice. That's not like my teams."
Williams is no less intense than he's always been, but during practice he's not the ranting, sweating, schvitzing guy you see on TV. He is also more involved in running things than just about any other college head coach. On Monday, Williams conducted virtually every drill by himself from start to finish. His assistants, Keith Booth and the newly added Michael Adams and Rob Moxley, stood on the sidelines offering occassional instructions. Williams exploded a few times, but his outbursts were often followed by funny quips and sarcastic looks that kept things light. You can tell his players like him.
Maybe it's because he turned 60 this year, or because Gilchrist is gone. Or maybe winning that championship three years ago really did erase some of his feelings of inferiority. But Williams is showing more of a sunny side this fall, and that bodes well for his team's prospects. At one point during a four-on-four drill, Williams seemed miffed that his players didn't react more enthusiastically when they got a defensive stop. "Aren't you guys happy?" he asked.
Gary Williams, coaching happiness? Now I've seen everything.