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|Thursday, October 25
Frankly speaking, Williams won't bow to Duke -- yet
By Andy Katz
COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Don't start talking about Duke here. Maryland knows its place, at least last season, was behind Duke. But that was then and these Terps have had enough Duke talk.
But like it or not, the Terps will continue to be compared to Duke, but in a favorable light. Even after losing three of four to the Blue Devils -- including ACC tournament semifinal and national semifinal games.
With both teams returning their nucleus, they start out the preseason as ESPN.com's No. 1 and No. 2 teams. The rest of the polls might follow suit next month, which may mean their two regular-season games could be more hyped than (gasp!) Duke-Carolina for the first time in decades.
"How many games did Duke lose last year?" Maryland coach Gary Williams asks. "Four? Other teams don't get measured by whether or not they beat Duke.
"Does Stanford? But we do.
"They're the best team. OK, so now everyone says Maryland isn't that good because they couldn't beat Duke. Well, who could beat Duke last year? Let's get serious. That's the good and bad of being in a league with them."
The good is that Maryland is capable of beating Duke and winning the national title. The bad is that they still could lose both the ACC and the national titles to Duke.
Understand, Williams is staying put at Maryland and his goal is to beat Duke. He knows beating the ACC's best team also means his team is competing for the national title every season. He's not obsessed with it, but Williams won't hide behind clichés and any coach-speak.
He's honest in his appraisal of where the Terps are in the nation, and against Duke. He's as direct in his comments as any coach, never running away from the reality of the situation.
There are no hidden agendas to land another coaching job. The 56-year old Williams signed a lucrative seven-year deal in the offseason. He's a Maryland alumnus and he's determined to keep the Terps a team that keeps its fans asking where the Final Four is each season and making reservations to be there.
"I don't want to go anywhere," said Williams, who coached at American, Boston College and Ohio State before Maryland. "I've moved enough early as a coach. I wish I could have figured that out earlier. You have to establish yourself, and once you do that, the program gets easier. You know things the longer you're there. The down side is that the longer you're there you can make more enemies."
Williams' first four seasons were under the NCAA sanctions that came about during the Bob Wade era. The Terps have been in the NCAA Tournament the past eight seasons since, capping off the turnaround with the school's and Williams' first-ever appearance in the Final Four.
"But that's not a big deal to make the NCAAs," Williams said. "The Final Four is. But I'll take the consistency that could allow us to build a new on-campus arena (the Comcast Center replaces Cole Field House in 2002-03), something 10 years ago no one would have wanted to touch."
Williams is honest and fiery about his passion to keep Maryland in line with Duke, and ahead of North Carolina and everyone else in the ACC. He doesn't fret about the emails and calls that the Terps don't recruit evenly with the Blue Devils. He's not worried about getting McDonald's All-Americans, even though the Terps have had their share.
"What was Steve Francis (out of junior college) or Joe Smith or Keith Booth or Danny Miller?" Williams asks. "We've got plenty of pros. I'd rather have a guy like Juan Dixon than a one-year guy. I enjoy coaching and teaching, but I don't want a Dajuan Wagner in my program for one year. I'd rather have my guys and go play Memphis and take our chances."
His most underrated recruiting coup might have been Lonny Baxter, the undersized 6-foot-8 senior forward who was the MVP in the West Region last March.
"The first ever for a Maryland player," Williams said. "Satisfaction in your job to me isn't just getting some list and saying, 'OK, that guy is rated top in the country. OK, we have to recruit him to be a good coaching staff.' That's the biggest bull I've ever heard.
"Most of those top 10 guys get cheated on anyway. Why do that? Why not be a coach instead of a used car salesman."
The comments are inflammatory, but they are what he feels when he's besieged with questions about recruiting.
Williams said he doesn't care about the recruiting mail that questions the Terps' class every year. That could, and should stop with the Terps' recruiting class of 2002. Just an FYI to Williams, your quartet of committed guards John Gilchrist and Chris McCray, forward Nik Caner-Medley and likely Travis Garrison, all appear on most top-100 lists.
"We'll continue to get good players," Williams said. "It's an insult to our players to say we don't have good players. Hey, just because someone said (junior forward) Tahj Holden was soft in high school doesn't mean he isn't any good. Go play against him. Georgetown had that talk and go ask them how soft he is (after Maryland beat Georgetown in the Sweet 16)."
The venom flows from Williams when the talent is put down or questioned, or even scoffed at by those who think they know what's best for the Terps.
Williams doesn't want to hear it, not anymore.
"Wake up every day and ask people nationally to name two of the five best teams in the past 50 years and it's Duke and North Carolina," Williams said. "We have to fight in every way for the media's and the referees' respect. None of that will change until we win the ACC, or finish further in the NCAA Tournament than Duke. I don't mind that because Duke deserves that, but nobody else in our league should be considered better than us."
Take that Carolina.
Ah, but to beat Duke, Williams said the Terps have to be more consistent and never be satisfied with a lead -- even a 10-point cushion in Cole can be wasted with a minute left in regulation. They've got to stay out of foul trouble, too. Point guard Steve Blake picking up his fifth foul late in that crushing loss led to Duke's stunning comeback.
"It wasn't a foul, I've got the tape to show you right now," Williams said. "If Blake doesn't foul out then we win it. But when you play Duke those things happen."
Take that officials.
But the bottom line for Maryland is the Terps have to catch Duke -- on the court, and this season is their best chance.
"Duke's not coming back to the pack," Williams said. "You've got to go get them. We have to prove we're a consistent winner at that level. Duke's not going to the Final Four every year, but they're a threat. We need to be too.
"There hasn't been a team from the other seven in the ACC who has consistently challenged Duke and Carolina for the top three spots in the league. Duke should get the credit because they've backed it up."
Now it's Maryland's turn.
"I wouldn't mind playing them four times again, they were great games and great for a coach to be involved in," Williams said. "That game where we blew the lead against Duke was an ESPN Classic. But when we beat them down there (at Cameron)? That wasn't an ESPN Classic. It's amazing isn't it?"
Take that ESPN.
Williams has always been to the point, direct and says what's on his mind. Don't expect that to change this season, or any other as long as he coaches the Terps. And, as long as they keep chasing Duke, Williams isn't taking anything back.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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