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ACC Preview #4 - Maryland

It wasn't supposed to be like this, you know. With two Final Fours, a
national title, an ACC championship and a gorgeous new arena, Gary
Williams had moved into the elite circle occupied by coaches like Smith,
Krzyzewski, and even Driesell, the only Maryland coach who is in the same zip
code as Williams. Williams, who has built a career on resentment, was supposed
to be basking in respect and love. But it hasn't exactly work out that

It's probably fair to say that, at least for now, the good times have ground to
a halt at Maryland. Gary Williams' team has now missed the NCAA for two
years in a row, and only made it the year before that because Jon Gilchrist went
nuts in the ACC Tournament and willed them in.

The year after that, he willed
them out and then bailed on the team. He would have been a senior last
season, and like the rest of the class either flaked out or bombed. Chris
McCray made the unbelievable mistake of blowing his eligibility in his final
semester. Travis Garrison got arrested in an assault case. Despite a huge
body and some talent, he never panned out. And though Nic Caner-Medley
enjoyed playing Larry Bird, his greatest notoriety came from being arrested for
being drunk, and for yelling "I'm from Maryland and I can't be beat."

he was, and they were, on a regular basis.

It's hard to argue at this point
that Gary Williams failed to take full advantage of his remarkable success in
the Juan Dixon/Steve Blake years. His recruiting actually got worse:
where before he exhibited a certain genius in identifying guys like Juan Dixon
and Lonny Baxter (another recent Maryland screwup, still in jail for firing a
gun near the White House), lately he's gone after some guys who have at best
been mediocre and at worst actively destructive to the team concept.

followed up last year's disastrous class with Will Bowers, Ekene Ibekwe,
Mike Jones, and D.J. Strawberry, seniors this year.

Strawberry has been the
best of the bunch so far, but he had a devastating knee injury along the
way. Bowers is a massive guy, but of limited strategic value. Ibekwe
is a hotheaded player, someone who can be goaded, and who apparently holds his
talent in higher regard than most observers do, as he entered the draft briefly
last spring to hoots of derision and disbelief. And while Mike Jones can
really shoot, he has never mastered the intensity level Williams demands.

Gist is a guy who could be a star. He's the only junior; Dave Neal was last
year's only freshman and he doesn't seem to be listed this season, at least not
that we can find (and you'd think the Maryland sites would update their rosters
by now).

Otherwise, it's freshmen. The best hope is Eric Hayes, a point
guard, a coach's son, who has drawn comparisons with Steve Blake, who was superb
during his time in College Park.

Grievis Vasquez is a Venezuelan
kid who can shoot. With most international kids, the question is defense,
so we'll see if he can handle that. If so, the early reports suggest he'll

Bambale Osby started off at New Mexico before taking his game to a JUCO.
He's big and thick and if he can rebound (and play defense) Gary will be happy
with him.

Jerome Burney is said to be athletic, which never hurts, and Landon
Milbourne can help on the wing, where Maryland is a bit thin.

Defense is
really a problem for Maryland; last season, they were 12th in the ACC
defensively and 275th nationally. Can't blame Strawberry; the kid plays
defense with a passion. And before McCray departed, he was a solid
defender. But Bowers can't defend away from the basket, Ibekwe is capable
but doesn't always get it done, and Mike Jones has never been a passionate
defender. Gist has the talent to defend, but he sort of faded away last

You have to believe, though, that Gary is seriously sick of falling
short, and moreover that he's feeling the pressure which he surely never thought
he'd feel after winning a national title.

We're guessing that he pulls out the
stops - that's saying something for a guy not known for his restraint - and
drives his team hard, and plays whoever can defend.

To us, that suggests a
lineup of Strawberry, Ibekwe, Hayes, Gist, and whoever plays with a passion,
possibly Burney or Milbourne.

That would give them huge size off the bench in
Bowers and Osby, and two potent offensive weapons in Jones and Vazquez.

whatever they arrange, the Terps better get busy: a fourth subpar year in a row
is going to drive their fans nuts.

At the height of criticism of Maryland
fans, after they gave Carlos Boozer's mom a concussion with a tossed water
bottle, Williams addressed the fans and basically gave the administration the
finger, egging them on. We said at the time that it was a craven act, and
that not standing up to the fans would hurt him in the long run because no one
respects someone who gets in front of the parade.

Now, after three frustrating
seasons, fans are turning on Williams and his team. The resentment which
has fueled his rise is now aimed at an ironic target, the fans who he once
called the best in the country.

In most cases, that would be a bad
thing. In Gary's case, it's probably a major break. He works better
with a chip on his shoulder, with a touch of paranoia, if you will. That's
what was behind his jibe at Roy Williams, when Ol' Roy came home and Gary said
that "I'm the Williams with a national championship," something
Ol' Roy quickly neutered.

Our guess is that he'll be fairly ruthless with this
team, that he'll focus on defense pretty maniacally, and that he'll find immense
motivation in the doubts many have in his program currently.

Will that be
enough? Will his players buy into it? Will five newcomers be able to
contribute enough to overcome their inexperience? Will they be able to
handle the relentless intensity?

Good questions. They'll be answered
soon. But an equally interesting question is whether Maryland fans will
continue to drift from Williams, or if he'll win them back - and if so, what
level of contempt he'll discover for his wayward followers. He'll say most
of the right things publicly - the man has his demons, but he usually manages to
shut them up in front of microphones - but there's no doubt in our mind that
he's angry, as he's always been, and that he'll not forget the doubters and the
fair-weather fans. Should be a fun ride whichever way it goes - that is,
from a distance.