Up where they belong
Terps escape shadows en route to the topPosted: Tuesday April 02, 2002 2:32 AM
The history books will show that Maryland spent exactly one day of the 2001-02 season at No. 1.
The last one.
In reality, the Terps were the nation's best all along. But the problem with basketball seasons is, for some strange reason, they don't decide these things 'til the very end.
From the time they rolled out the balls back at Midnight Madness, Dick Vitale, Billy Packer and nine of 10 Nielsen families already had anointed Duke as otherworldly beings. The Blue Devils spent the first seven weeks of the season atop the polls and 12 overall, including the final rankings prior to the NCAA tournament.
Meanwhile, all the Terps did was dominate those same Blue Devils in their second meeting of the season and finish two games ahead of them in the ACC standings.
The four weeks that Duke was not atop the rankings, Kansas was. And though the Jayhawks had a superb season themselves, going 16-0 in Big 12 play, Maryland proved noticeably superior when the two met in the Final Four.
Even upon reaching the ultimate stage, the national championship game, the Terps couldn't help but get boxed out of the spotlight. Indiana's underdog run under Mike Davis snared all the headlines, obscuring the equally significant story of Maryland culminating the Juan Dixon/Lonny Baxter era with its first title appearance.
The Hoosiers always will be remembered for their remarkable three-week run. But the Terps go in the history books for their season as a whole.
They finished 32-4, 15-0 in their final season at Cole Field House. Following an uncharacteristic 72-56 loss at Oklahoma on Dec. 21, they proceeded to win 18 of their next 19. The only slip-up: a 99-78 defeat at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Avenging that defeat four weeks later would prove as significant a moment as any for Gary Williams' reborn program. Despite knocking off Duke in each of the previous two seasons, the lingering image of the Terps remained the blown 22-point lead in the 2001 Final Four, or the miracle final-minute comeback at Cole.
On Feb. 17, in a game Maryland led 64-39 at one point, any notion of Duke owning Maryland was wiped away. From there, it was simply a matter of taking care of business, which the Terps did, outside an ACC Tournament loss to N.C. State. In the NCAA tourney, they dismantled powerhouses Kentucky, Connecticut, Kansas and Indiana, all in a row.
In retrospect, it makes perfect sense how 2002 came to be the year of the turtle. But it's also apropos that so many people failed to see it coming.
After all, the Dixon/Baxter era began in anonymity. No one deemed them the class that would lead Maryland to the promised land. More like fill-ins for departed stars like Steve Francis, Laron Profit and Obinna Ekezie. Even upon making their talents abundantly clear, they couldn't seem to match the star power of ACC counterparts like Jason Williams and Joseph Forte.
And even when it became apparent this year that the Terps had the commensurate talent on the court, there remained the doubters who felt they lacked it on the sideline. Williams had the victories and the name recognition, but until last year no Final Four. Until this year, no ACC title. Surely a national title was beyond his limitations?
In the end, the only limitation for Maryland was time. The regular season ran out before Maryland could land that elusive first No. 1 ranking by the pollsters. Dixon and Baxter's careers ran out before we could start any serious dynasty talk.
But when the clock at the Georgia Dome ran out Monday night, there was no one else but Maryland to stand in the spotlight.