And the word went forth from Cole Field House: Maryland’s basketball team really is for real.
A bit of doubt had crept in because the Terps played pathetically in losing this season’s opener to Arizona and thus forfeiting a meaningless No. 2 preseason ranking. If three subsequent victories didn’t do much to reburnish Maryland’s reputation, last night’s rollicking 76-63 thumping of current No. 2 Illinois certainly should.
There also should be no further doubts about Gary Williams’ ability to motivate the troops. Maryland had been perceived as vulnerable on rebounding fronts because Illinois last November and Arizona last month beat the Terps to a pulp on the boards. But this time, they came out fighting madand fighting for every rebound, as well as playing tough, tight defense. Before the start of combat, Williams said, “We have to be physical. These Terps were very physical.
When they stopped the fight, Maryland had a 42-38 rebounding edge, and this was with big man Lonny Baxter contributing very little. In fact, sophomore Chris Wilcox was looking very much like a man who wanted Baxter’ starting job and just might get it.
Illinois has a swift, confident team that looks like it ought to score 100 points every night. Thus it was startling to look at the scoreboard late in the first half and discover that the Slighting Illini might not reach 30 for the first 20 minutes. That’s how well the Terps were playing.
Maryland rattled off the final seven points of the half, five by sixth man Drew Nicholas for a 41-29 lead at intermission. When the Terps opened the second half with a 10-4 spurt, it was pretty much all over at 51-33 with 15:40 to play, giving the delirious partisans good reason to raise Cole’s roof.
Williams is not quite as ecstatic. He now will spend days and nights worrying whether the Terps (a) have peaked too early and (b) will grow overconfident. I don’t have to ask Gary about this, because I know how coaches are, especially this coach. But if either problem arises, the start of ACC play in January should provide a ready antidote.
With just about all hands returning, the Terps should deck nearly everybody they play. That doesn’t mean they will, as Gary would be the first to tell you.
If Maryland does indeed live up to its advance notices, this should be the best school year for both football and men’s basketball since H.C. “Curley” Byrd first appeared at Terptown in the early part of the last century and decided to hang around for 50 years or so.
Ralph Friedgen’s astonishing football team gave this work in progress an unexpected head start with its 10-1 regular-season record. Except for a pending bowl date, most likely in the Orange or Sugar, the challenge now falls to its basketball brethren.
For the first time since Bobby Ross defected to Georgia Tech in 1986 and left the football program in tatters, Maryland’s teams in the two revenue sports are competing on even terms for attention. And that should please all but the most dedicated turtle-haters, because this school is way overdue at producing the kind of twin powerhouses befitting its size and location between two talent-rich metropolitan areas.
Believe me, there’s enough muscle out there to keep each program on top of its respective heap, or thereabouts. And more than enough past frustration to make current athletic delights the tastiest of meals.
All it takes is the right coaches to command the troops. Although Williams’ ambitions have been thwarted repeatedly by the ACC’s two perennial powers in basketball, Duke and North Carolina, it has been obvious for many years that he is the right man for the job. The only problem, from Gary’s perspective, might be that fellow alumnus Friedgen got football’s restoration project done a lot faster. Can’t you imagine Gary sidling up to Ralph at some campus function and muttering under his breath, “Thanks a heap, creep, for showing me up.”
That is a joke, of course, because every victory for one of the teams increases Maryland’s visibility on jock fronts and makes recruiting easier for the other. A bowl game certainly would delight Williams no end, at least for three hours until he starts worrying about his team’s next test against Norfolk State on Jan. 3.
But we digress. Maryland’s fortunes have never been this high in both sports, not even when Jerry Claiborne and Lefty Driesell were restoring the Terps to eminence in the 1970s. And over the last decade, as we know, football had been a nasty word in College Park and environs until Friedgen, perhaps history’s heftiest knight in shining armor, came riding to the rescue.
Oh, there have been years in which both sports sparkled, but not to this degree. I don’t know whether Williams intends to keep nagging his players about the football team’s success, but it might not be a bad idea. After all, winning can be as contagious as losing and a lot more fun.