- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 22, 2001

ANAHEIM, Calif. The Sweet 16 has been strictly sour for Gary Williams.

The Maryland coach has led teams to regional semifinals six times and lost each time. For all his accomplishments in 23 seasons as a head coach, including leading Maryland off probation and into a current stretch of eight consecutive NCAA tournaments, he is widely viewed as being unable to win the big one and crash the Elite Eight.

"We would like to do it for him just so people would stop talking about it," Maryland center Mike Mardesich said.

Williams is well aware how the Terrapins do tonight in their Sweet 16 game against Georgetown at Arrowhead Pond will go a long way toward determining how some view him. Maryland, seeded third in the West Region, is a heavy favorite over the 10th-seeded Hoyas. Williams, 56, is again on the verge of a breakthrough, and perhaps seven will indeed be his lucky number.

"I don't think you can connect years," said Williams, who led Boston College to two Sweet 16s before coming to his alma mater in 1989. "It has been close at times. At times, we haven't played well for whatever reasons. We've been hurt a couple times. Different things happen. But you don't get the chance to play [a regional semifinal] game again. You have to get it done that one game."

But despite Maryland's oddly inconsistent season, this is Williams' best chance to reach his first Elite Eight and the first for the Terps since 1975, when Lefty Driesell stomped on the Maryland sideline. For the first time in Williams' four trips to the Sweet 16 with the Terps, they are not facing a team seeded third or higher. The only time Maryland lost to a lower seed under Williams was when No. 3 St. John's embarrassed No. 2 Maryland, with Steve Francis, 76-62 in the South Region in 1999.

In addition to facing the 10th seed, the Terps are playing their best basketball of the season. After a swoon that saw them lose five of six, beginning with the infamous Duke game at Cole Field House, Maryland has won eight of nine heading into tonight.

"People say Coach is known for putting on added pressure as you get later in the season, but he's done a great job controlling his temper and staying positive," said small forward Byron Mouton in a relaxed locker room before yesterday's shootaround. "The whole thing about Maryland is that during the course of the year it would be good, but when the conference tournament and NCAAs came along, they would go downhill. This time we struggled throughout the year. But the last couple of games, we've gone uphill. I just have this feeling about this team. We have the talent, the bench everything."

Williams downplays the dubious streak, noting that most coaches would love to take teams to five Sweet 16s in an eight-year period. The coach feels too much emphasis is placed on the one-and-done tournament.

"I always judge myself privately after the season is over," he said. "I have had teams that have won 20 games and I didn't feel I did a particularly good job. I have had teams, like the ones that were on sanctions, where we didn't have a particularly good record but I thought I did a really good job."

Williams has suffered numerous heartbreakers in regional finals. Former Virginia star Ralph Sampson led the Cavaliers to a 95-92 win over Williams' BC team in 1983, and Andre Turner hit a last-second shot to carry Memphis State to a 67-66 overtime win over the Eagles in 1985.

The coach has taken Maryland to four Sweet 16s in the past seven seasons but were forced to watch Michigan (1994), Connecticut (1995), Arizona (1998) and St. John's celebrate their way into the next round.

"We're not really worried about the track record of the Sweet 16," said small forward Danny Miller, a recent force off the bench. "This is a different team. We're capable of going to the championship and winning it."

But to do that, Williams and the Terps would have to run the Sweet 16 roadblock. The stage is set for that breakthrough moment.

"People are ultimately judged on championships and how far you go," Mardesich said. "People don't realize how difficult it is in a one-and-done situation. There are a million reasons why you win or lose. It's not fair to judge an entire program or a coach on that."

Fair or not, critics will continue to do just that until Williams' fortunes turn truly sweet in the Sweet 16.


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