- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 1, 2007

The anticipation heightened deep in Tallahassee’s dungeon-like Donald L. Tucker Center on Tuesday night as Maryland coach Gary Williams tarried in the locker room. Normally one to fulfill his media obligation on the road quickly before bolting to the bus to catch the team’s charter flight, he was taking an unusual amount of time.

Ten minutes passed. Then 15. Finally, 20 minutes after the final buzzer, Williams stepped to the podium, remarkably placid for a man whose team just lost a much-needed road game at Florida State 96-79.

It was an intriguing moment for the sometimes explosive coach, who has remained positive about the Terrapins’ prospects even after the most disappointing of losses this season. There’s a statistical logic to his approach; the Terps (16-6, 2-5 ACC) have an RPI of 34 and a home-heavy schedule remaining.

Yet the hard data doesn’t entirely explain the coach’s attitude.

While Williams grew frustrated as the last two seasons devolved into NIT berths, he has abstained from lashing out at this team, perhaps an attempt to buoy the Terps and perhaps even himself psychologically.

“He’s a real fiery coach, and he wants to win so bad,” senior guard D.J. Strawberry said. “He knows the team we have. We want to win, too. I think that he thinks if he puts us down, then we’re going to all shut down. We’re not out of it. He knows that, and he tells us that we’re not out of it. We’re still in it. We just have to find a way to win on the road.”

Williams has produced a few prickly replies after losses this season, but his attitude generally has been one of acceptance for that night’s troubles while remaining optimistic about the future.

Such was the case Tuesday when the Terps fell to 0-4 in conference road games as Florida State shot 61.7 percent from the floor. The Terps’ best shot at a road win was an overtime setback Jan. 21 at Virginia Tech, a lost opportunity that increases in importance with every defeat.

“That probably would have helped us to win that game going into [Tuesday’s] game,” Williams said. “That’s the way it goes. I’ve been doing this long enough to know you have to keep fighting. Nobody’s going to feel sorry for you.”

Williams repeatedly has said he likes this year’s Terps, and he has defended their potential even as losses accumulated. But there is no question his top two scorers have struggled as Maryland has fallen in the conference standings.

Guard Mike Jones has reflected the team-wide inconsistency. While he remains a threat from the perimeter each night, Jones hasn’t matched his season average of 13.2 points in back-to-back games since November.

More befuddling is Strawberry’s nearly month-long slump. He entered the Jan. 10 game against Miami shooting 51.7 percent overall while averaging 16.2 points and appeared ready to lead the Terps into the NCAA tournament. However, he’s averaging only 11.3 points in the last six games and made only 20 of 58 shots (34.5 percent) in that span.

“I’m just not making plays right now,” Strawberry said. “I just have to keep working hard and find a way to make plays if we want to win. If I want to get to the tournament, I know I have to make plays for this team in order for us to win.”

The odds Maryland can do so decrease with every setback. Only four teams in ACC history overcame 2-5 starts in conference play to reach the NCAA tournament, and only one has done it in the last 20 years.

That was the 2004 Terps, who finished 7-9 in the league before winning the conference tournament. Maybe that recent experience is helping Williams maintain a steady voice while mixing in a curious blend of reality and hope, pragmatism and optimism.

“We have 16 wins. We have to turn it around and get more wins obviously, and we’re in conference play, but we can do that,” Williams said. “That’s our focus right now.”

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