Archive for Monday, April 1, 2002

Talented Terrapins seek first national crown

April 1, 2002


— Maryland has shown a blatant disregard for college basketball tradition on its road to the NCAA championship game.

The Terrapins hope to make a little history of their own tonight against tradition-rich Indiana at the Georgia Dome.

"We're not playing against their tradition," UM post player Lonny Baxter said of IU, which is playing in its eighth Final Four and trying for its sixth national title. "This is a whole another season for them, and it's a whole another season for us. We're just playing this year's team. I've seen parts of the movie 'Hoosiers,' but I've never seen the whole movie. I'm not worried about their tradition. I'm only worried about how we play tomorrow night."

History doesn't mean much to the Terps. UM never reached a Final Four in its first 96 seasons. The Terrapins finally made it last season, but UM squandered a 22-point lead against Atlantic Coast Conference rival Duke in the national semifinals and suffered an 11-point loss.

Maryland, short on tradition but long on talent, rolled through the rugged ACC this season and made it back to the Final Four for the second year in a row.

The Terps reached this point by knocking off some storied programs and will face another hallowed hoops school in IU. After slipping past Siena and Wisconsin in the opening rounds, UM knocked off Kentucky  a program with 13 Final Four appearances and seven national titles  in the Sweet 16. The Terps clobbered 1999 national champion Connecticut, 71-59, in the Elite Eight to earn a return trip to the Final Four.

On Saturday, UM squeaked past Kansas  a team with 11 Final Four banners and two NCAA titles  in the national semifinals.

"We're trying to establish ourselves," coach Gary Williams said. "Our program probably hasn't been as smooth as a lot of those other programs. We've had some ups and downs."

After stops at American, Boston College and Ohio State, Williams returned to his alma mater in 1989 and inherited a team that had won nine games the previous season.

The Terps had already endured two scandals in 1986 Â All-American Len Bias' cocaine overdose and the resignation of coach Lefty Driesell amid academic scandal.

"I knew it would really hurt the University of Maryland," Williams said of Bias' death and the problems that followed. "I didn't realize how much it hurt  not just the athletic department, but the whole school  until I got there because there was a feeling that the basketball program had hurt the university's academic standing in a lot of things. ... No other school had gone through that, so no one knew how to react to that situation. I had to learn myself, just try to do the best job I could to make sure people understood we were going to try to have a good program with good people."

After Williams guided UM to a 19-14 record and an NIT berth in his first season, his job became even more difficult when the NCAA hit the Terps with sanctions for rules violations committed under former coach Bob Wade. Maryland was banned from postseason play and television for two years and lost two scholarships.

Williams  who was working his fourth job in 12 years  stayed put, and his persistence has paid off. Maryland has reached nine straight NCAA Tournaments, reached the Sweet 16 in four of the past five seasons and made back-to-back Final Four trips.

"When I was at the University of Maryland and going to school, we weren't a very good basketball team, but you got to see some really good programs," said Williams, who played for the Terps from 1964 to 1967. "I always felt when I left there and went into high school coaching and all that, there's no reason why Maryland couldn't be as good as anybody else. I guess that was always in the back of my mind, but never thinking I would be the coach at the University of Maryland."

Williams, who is 273-143 at UM and 480-271 overall, has done it by turning some marginal prospects into outstanding players.

"Guys just work hard," All-America guard and ACC player of the year Juan Dixon said. "We don't have a lot of McDonald's All-Americans. Since I've been here, I think we've had one  Danny Miller  and he left our program. Coach just recruits guys who want to work hard to become better players. We didn't come to school with big egos. Personally, I've worked hard the last four years, and I had a dream. I just wanted to become a big-time college basketball player."

Dixon, 6-foot-3 and 164 pounds, was considered too small to play in the ACC by many college recruiters. Four years later, he is considered an NBA prospect. He dropped 33 points on Kansas on Saturday in a 97-88 semifinal victory.

Similarly, 6-8 post player Lonny Baxter was not highly recruited, but he is a two-time regional MVP.

Dixon, Baxter and Tulane transfer Byron Mouton form the most successful senior class in Maryland history. The Terps are 109-31 in the last four seasons.

Those seniors would like to leave College Park with national championship rings.

"It would mean a lot to me, personally, because coach Williams took a chance on me," Dixon said. "He's been here since, I guess, 1989. He brought the program a long ways. They were in a lot of trouble back then. We're one of the top programs in the country today."

Life is good for Williams. The 57-year-old coach signed a long-term contract last year worth $1.4 million per season. He has signed four of the nation's top-50 recruits for next season, when the Terps will open the $100 million, 17,000-seat Comcast Center.

"I hope part of the legacy is the fact we were able to get the program to a point where it is now from where it was when I got there," Williams said. "The other thing is, if we did not have a good basketball program the last nine years or so, we wouldn't be able to build the new arena. We're proud of that."

Commenting has been disabled for this item.