- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Gary Williams has an ACC championship but not complete satisfaction.

Williams and his Maryland Terrapins enter the NCAA tournament tomorrow feeling somewhat slighted despite receiving an unexpectedly lofty No.4 seed.

“I don’t want to say desperation, but going down [to the ACC tournament] we had this feeling that we had something to prove. I think we still have something to prove,” Williams said yesterday. “There’s some people out there that say we don’t deserve to be a fourth seed.”

Though the Terrapins (19-11) are 61/2-point favorites to beat Texas-El Paso (24-7), the sentiment isn’t unanimous. Some bracket gurus on major sports Web sites predict the 13th-seeded Miners will pull a first-round upset in Denver.

Perhaps the Terps will come out flat after the three emotional victories in 43 hours that gave them their first ACC title in 20 years. Perhaps their remarkable late-season surge — they won six of seven games, including four over ranked teams — will leave the young team unable to regroup four days after cutting down the nets in Greensboro, N.C.

Williams is playing head games — trying to relax players without letting down. The Terps were given Monday off while Williams studied film of four UTEP games. Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich met with players yesterday before the Terps practiced and departed for Denver. The team doesn’t seem to feel the pressure of being a favorite, but players admitted the past week was mentally challenging.

“Any time you go from an emotional high like [winning the ACC], the best thing for me to do is meditate,” guard John Gilchrist said. “Let everything die down. I can’t be around too much more. I’m emotionally drained.”

Williams doesn’t expect the Terps to quickly forget the ACC tournament. However, he won’t let them consider it the season’s pinnacle.

“You can’t relax now because you won the ACC tournament,” Williams said. “I have to stress how important it is to keep that feeling going. I don’t think you put [the ACC title] away right away. Guys like [forward] Mike Grinnon will remember it for the rest of their lives. But when it comes time to play Thursday, it’s different.”

Balancing the nine underclassmen emotionally has been a season-long challenge for Williams. After beating No.1 Florida and No.15 Wisconsin in December to heighten expectations, Maryland lost seven of 10 to nearly miss the tournament. Still, Williams kept stroking his players even as they lost eight straight games to ranked teams. He felt the Terps were improving, despite the team’s record.

“I wasn’t going to let them plateau,” Williams said. “Watching a player not reach his potential, that’s where I take it hardest so I’m not going to let that happen.”

Senior center Jamar Smith and sophomore Gilchrist saw the Terps’ uneven run to the Sweet 16 last season. They knew the five freshmen simply needed time to jell. It took until season’s end for them to absorb the repeated lessons.

“[Williams] had so much stuff he wanted to teach us,” Gilchrist said. “You can’t overload everybody so fast. I could see the frustration in him at first, but he had to wait until we got it. He crammed, crammed, crammed and eventually things started to turn around. People started to get it.”

Said Smith: “We’re a lot better now. We’re peaking at the right time. Everybody rises for the tournament.”

Notes — Guard D.J. Strawberry is questionable after aggravating his sprained ankle against Duke on Sunday. Williams hoped Strawberry would practice today, but conceded the defensive standout and backup point guard might miss the UTEP game. … Ehrlich said he would bet his Texas gubernatorial counterpart over the game, but wasn’t sure of the stakes. “What do they have that we want?” Ehrlich said. “Barbecue? We have barbecue.”

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