- The Washington Times - Friday, February 27, 2009

A friend approached Gary Williams as the witching hour neared Wednesday night at Comcast Center and pumped his hand, which is something you usually don’t do with losing coaches after a game. Then the man asked a simple question: “NCAA?”

Williams shook his head slightly.

“We don’t have enough wins yet,” the Maryland basketball coach replied. “We need to get a couple more. But the way we’re playing, we’re good enough [to crash the Big Dance].”

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And so the Terrapins are. Williams’ 20th team at Maryland is one of his less talented. Relatively short in stature and frustratingly erratic, the Terps probably won’t have much more than a sip of coffee - to borrow a baseball term - if they do turn up in the NCAA tournament next month.

But they deserve to be there because of true grit, if not much else.

OK, so the Terps faded at the finish in that 78-67 loss to Duke just four days after shocking North Carolina in overtime. Yet the two games illustrated once again how good Williams is at preparing his troops for significant combat.

This is a team that lost to the dratted Dookies by 41 points a month ago in Durham, N.C., on a day when, as Williams put it, “we just didn’t play.” In the rematch, however, Maryland stayed with the Blue Devils for 34 minutes until back-to-back 3-pointers sent Duke ahead to stay.

Williams, famously intense, is not noted for publicly praising his players after a loss. Yet the way he talked about these Terps, you would have thought he was describing his 2002 national champions.

“This is a damn good basketball team,” he insisted. “We played really hard tonight - we played our hearts out. I’m really proud of our players and the job they did in getting ready. We’re going to be tough the rest of the way, I guarantee you.”

If Williams’ guarantee doesn’t exactly match Joe Namath’s for impact, the fact remains that once again he is getting everything out of his team there is to be gotten.

Unfortunately, that may not be enough to keep Maryland fans hopping and hoping much longer. Williams has caught some flak this season for not recruiting as successfully as he once did - a fact that prompted athletic director Debbie Yow to give him a de facto vote of confidence last month.

Perhaps Gary is vulnerable on this score. Sometimes I wonder if Williams the coach peers into the mirror at Williams the recruiter and yowls, “Why in the name of Lefty Driesell don’t you get me better players?”

Regardless of what happens in March, Williams isn’t going anywhere. He appears as focused and energetic as ever, even to his painful sideline posture of crouching on those aging knees - he and they will be 64 next week - when he isn’t on his feet screeching at the zebras.

In 20 seasons, he has crouched and screeched Maryland to a record 414 victories, 66 more than runner-up Driesell. He has snatched one national title, his teams have made 15 NCAA tournament appearances, and his 621 wins at American, Boston College, Ohio State and Maryland rank him sixth among active Division I coaches.

In short, he is a local icon and rightly so. When he walked onto the court to watch his team warm up two hours before Wednesday night’s game, early-arriving students applauded as though he had distributed free pizza through the stands. When Williams leaves his alma mater, it will be at a time of his choosing. Nobody else’s, although he and Yow reportedly are not BFF.

As to the current chase, Gary is right: The 17-10 Terps need to nab two victories in their remaining regular-season dates with N.C. State, Wake Forest and Virginia, plus possibly at least one in the ACC tournament, to gain an NCAA berth (assuming they do not qualify automatically by somehow winning the ACC tournament).

Let’s hope they do, for Gary Williams if for no other reason.

This has not been the best of seasons in College Park, where modestly talented guard Greivis Vasquez is about the best the Terps have to offer. But when it comes to coaching and motivation, they just might have the best guy.

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