The undercurrent of relief permeated Gary Williams‘ words Sunday, an indication of an oft-uneven venture finally concluding just the way he hoped it might months ago.
His Maryland basketball team was in the NCAA tournament, shipped to Kansas City, Mo., for a first-round meeting with California on Thursday in what was perhaps the Terrapins‘ most improbable of their 13 trips to the event under Williams.
It was unexpected in the context of the precise spot the season began - limited size, dubious depth - and where it finished. The chasm between the two could be rationalized in part with an incomplete evaluation of the abilities of those in the program.
But only in part.
Instead, the most significant reason the Terps are heading to the heartland Tuesday rather than playing host to an NIT game is a penchant for progress, even if it was often subtle rather than glaring.
“We were trying to become a good basketball team,” Williams said. “This year stands out compared to a lot of years in terms of there was a whole process throughout the year to get to where we could be a very good basketball team. We all worked very hard for that.”
Much of it meant steadily approaching the everyday grind rather than impulsively reacting to the course of events over the previous 24 hours.
Sure, some turns left the 10th-seeded Terps (20-13) with a lingering despondence - a 41-point drubbing at Duke has a way of doing that. Yet for the most part, players and coaches said it was difficult to discern during practice whether Maryland was coming off a rough loss or a superlative victory.
“I think our team handled losses pretty well in the sense that we were real hard on ourselves afterward and the next day realized we had business to take care of and the season’s not over,” forward Landon Milbourne said. “We have to move on and get prepared for the next team. We always did a good job of that, coming in after a loss or a win. We’re just a good preparation-type team.”
It was a necessity for the Terps to bridge a talent gap even they acknowledged existed. This is a team, after all, without a starter listed at taller than 6-foot-7 - and not surprisingly a minimal low-post game to go with it.
Maryland often attempted to hide that deficiency, surrendering open 3-pointers at the risk of an opponent wrecking it in the paint. Sometimes it didn’t work, but the important thing was the Terps simply returned to work after their reamings determined to get better.
“Coming every day and preparing for practice was a huge thing for us,” forward Dave Neal said. “Being a team like we are without all the big-time names, without the McDonald’s All-Americans, the fact we came every day to practice and get better, that was pretty much our mentality.”
Players said those practice sessions frequently featured Williams’ no-frills manner of prioritizing crucial points. If the Terps were playing North Carolina, for example, he stressed preventing the Tar Heels from going one-on-one, defending the 3-point line and keeping the up-tempo titans out of transition.
Maryland did all three in a Feb. 21 victory, recovering from an ugly 29-point loss four days earlier to burnish their postseason resume. But the groundwork came well before the game, not as the Terps erased a 16-point deficit in the second half.