- The Washington Times - Monday, January 31, 2005

On a cold winter’s night, with ice forming and snow drifting, there is no warmer place for a basketball fan than Comcast Center.

Watching Gary Williams operate.

I don’t know whether Gary is the best coach in college basketball — how can anybody tell? — but he certainly is up there somewhere. Consider:

Eight days ago, his Maryland Terrapins stunk up the joint and very nearly all of Prince George’s County in an embarrassing 16-point loss to N.C. State. “Woe is us,” said the faint of heart — or maybe, like those old Brooklyn baseball fans, “Wait till next year.”

They should have known better. Williams is such a good coach that his teams nearly always improve as the season slogs on. All Maryland has done since the N.C. State debacle is beat No.2 Duke on the road and No.22 Georgia Tech last night at Comcast 79-71.

In other words, a scrappy but not particularly daunting gang of Terps has dispatched an undefeated opponent and last season’s national runner-up after playing a game that might have made lesser outfits hang their heads and feel sorry for themselves.

Invited to explain this astonishing turnaround, Gary wasn’t much help — probably because coaches would rather invite 10 referees to dinner than reveal their innermost thoughts to panting media hordes.

“We all worked hard,” he suggested. “Maybe we worked a little harder. But that’s part of being a college athlete. You have to realize you’re not going to win every game.”

Anyone who has seen Gary Williams coach — crouching tensely in front of the bench, sweating profusely, yowling at his players and the zebras with fine and impartial abandon — would have expected him to turn up at practice last Monday as a snapping turtle. But, Mike Grinnon said, nothing was further from the truth.

Unless you’re as avid a Maryland fan as Robert Novak — the acerbic political columnist who would rather praise a liberal Democrat than miss a Terps game — you may not know who Mike Grinnon is. For four years, he has mostly decorated the Maryland bench, averaging about four minutes a game. Now a co-captain, he gets a better chance than anybody else to observe Williams at close range.

“The thing about Coach is he’s good at seeing the big picture,” Grinnon said in a corner of the Terps’ locker room last night. “He never gets too high after a win or too low after a loss, and we pick up on that.”

What! Gary didn’t bite off a few heads after the loss to N.C. State?

“He left everything up to us,” Grinnon insisted. “He said he could only do so much on the sideline. … You know, he’s had to do a lot more teaching the last two seasons because the teams have been so young, and I think he’s gotten more patient. I don’t know why we played so badly against State, but all he said afterward was, ‘It’s not going to happen again.’ ”

So far it hasn’t.

Not that the Terps were brilliant or anything last night. Maryland and Georgia Tech have remarkably similar teams that play hard, if not always well. Both were due for a letdown after big victories, the Terps over Duke on Wednesday and the Yellow Jackets over No.5 Wake Forest in overtime Thursday. But they certainly gave the paying customers all anybody could want in an extremely physical game.

Maryland won with tenacious defense, as Williams acknowledged, while shooting 44.8 percent from the floor and outrebounding Georgia Tech 41-36. Yet despite holding a 12-point lead in the opening minutes of the second half, the Terps never quite turned matters into a laugher. In fact, when their lead shrunk to five with two minutes left, a man sitting behind one of the baskets turned to a companion and said, “This one has heartbreaking loss written all over it.”

Georgia Tech lacked the requisite finishing kick, however. Neither team scored for a stultifying span of 3:51 during which some fans probably took catnaps. No, I take that back because the action was frantic throughout, if not aesthetically pleasing. And five minutes after it was over, Williams probably was summoning up schemes for tomorrow night’s date at Clemson.

“No matter how we play, when we come in for practice the next day, it’s all about the next opponent,” said Chris McCray, the Terps’ other captain. Meaning that what’s done is done, and — to quote the late George Allen — the future is now.

Maryland’s future will be promising as long as Gary Williams is stewing on the bench and teaching on the court. In his 16th season at his alma mater, he needs just nine more victories to pass Lefty Driesell’s 348 and become the Terps’ winningest coach.

Don’t ever bet against him. Don’t ever bet against him.

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