- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 21, 2009

KANSAS CITY, Mo. | From time to time this winter, Temple coach Fran Dunphy spoke with his old boss from American.

He and Gary Williams engaged in the conversations men with their own Division I basketball programs typically share. Maybe a game gets mentioned. Perhaps a practice.

Yet whenever they talked, Williams always meandered back to his enjoyment of working with this year’s Maryland team, a strong bond forged in difficult moments that remains unshakable as the Terrapins (21-13) head into Saturday’s second-round NCAA tournament game against Memphis (32-3) at Sprint Center.

“You have some special teams you get close to, and it seemed to me Gary got close to these guys,” Dunphy said. “Whether it was [Greivis] Vasquez or [Eric] Hayes or whoever, he seemed very much in tune with what they were doing.”

While Williams’ combative tendencies were well-suited to a season marked by heavy criticism, it took a deft touch to take public hits for a team amid a series of setbacks.

This was, after all, a team pegged for the bottom half of the ACC. And when extensive scrutiny of Williams’ recruiting bubbled up after years of percolating just below the crust of college basketball, the obvious subtext was that any such rumblings were an indictment of the roster he assembled.

Few in the Terps’ locker room would argue that this year’s bunch is as naturally gifted as last year’s. But Williams’ credibility with his players grew as he urged patience from the start of the season and continued to defend them after rough losses to Georgetown, Morgan State and Duke.

His approach was rewarded in the past month, when Maryland surged to a surprise NCAA berth and Thursday’s first-round defeat of California. But when Williams was pilloried, his players took notice.

“That’s what happens when Coach’s life gets blended in with ours, as far as basketball and him not coming back and whatever the case was,” forward Landon Milbourne said. “That just made us closer to him and made us go out and work harder for him. That’s all he really asks is for us to work hard.”

So they have, earning a place among Williams’ most memorable teams. Milbourne said the Terps “showed [Williams] some love” after Maryland popped up in the NCAA tournament field Sunday, and forward Jerome Burney joked it was either tears or sweat that appeared near Williams’ eyes during the celebration.

Williams and misty-eyed moments don’t always fit together. He bellows. He scowls. He struts the sideline in his own inimitable way, at times spewing stream-of-consciousness ranting to an assistant before turning back toward the court, resuming a crouch and scouring the action for subtleties.

But for this group, the shared experiences created with swinging emotions in the past few months ensured this group would remain special to Williams.

“I think I’ve been pretty close to a lot of teams,” Williams said. “I think this team’s gotten a lot of attention for that, so I do feel I’m close to these guys. It’s just the perception a lot of the time is people see you yell at a player and they say, ‘Well, he doesn’t get along with his players’ - which is so far wrong it’s unbelievable.”

Nowhere is the tightness more evident than in Williams’ relationship with Vasquez. When the junior cursed out fans at Comcast Center, Williams told him not to repeat the behavior but issued only a mild public scolding. Almost two months later when Vasquez was criticized for hitting a meaningless 3-pointer at the buzzer at N.C. State, Williams said such behavior was unacceptable but that the taunting Vasquez absorbed during the game contributed to the guard’s needless shot.

And whenever Williams was taken to task before the Terps earned a postseason berth - and even this week after they won a game - Vasquez emerged as his most vocal defender.

“He’s trying to win. He’s not trying to go to the NIT,” Vasquez said. “People were saying and writing all that stuff about him, but the man is just a hard worker. He’s been really close. Out of my three years, this is the year I’ve seen him more into it. He really wants us to do something special. I’m not saying he didn’t want to before, but you can tell there’s something different from years past.”

It’s also a traditional Williams team, a group that already extracted plenty from an undersized roster and is now 40 minutes from the program’s first regional semifinal appearance since 2003. The Terps are a decided underdog against Memphis, and the athleticism gap between the teams is obvious.

Then again, those are issues Williams helped neutralize earlier in the season against other top-10 opponents.

“I think it’s one of his better coaching jobs - one of his best for sure,” said former Virginia coach Pete Gillen, who is working this weekend’s games in Kansas City as an analyst for Westwood One radio. “He has good talent but not great talent. He’s had much, much better teams. For him to get into the tournament, to beat [North] Carolina, to beat Michigan State, to beat Wake, that’s an outstanding achievement.”

Still, it probably wouldn’t have happened if Williams didn’t support his players from the start of the season - and if they had not reciprocated in kind to validate his feelings about them.

“When they were getting some criticism, that either tears you apart or brings you together,” Dunphy said. “They got closer, and the result is they’re in the NCAA tournament.”

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