Each week here at the Toy Department, two Baltimore Sun staffers will engage in a segment we like to call The Conversation, where they'll swap emails with one another and debate something that is in the news. This week, Childs Walker and Kevin Van Valkenburg debate the state of Maryland basketball, and what the Terps will do going forward.
As I watched Memphis take Maryland to the woodshed this afternoon, I couldn't help but think the beatdown was a perfect representation of where the Terps stand.
They turned into a fun team this year, they really did. They played hard. They rallied around Gary Williams when his critics took out the long knives. Greivis Vasquez produced memorable performances and even more memorable quotes. Dave Neal found a way to keep scoring with his self-described YMCA game.
But when they ran into an elite team playing at the top of its game, they not only lost; they couldn't compete.
The game was Maryland's worst nightmare really. We knew the Terps were overmatched body for body, but we couldn't have expected Memphis to shoot 70 percent and make 8 of 11 threes in the first half. The Tigers were so efficient that they didn't even need to pound the offensive glass to outclass Maryland. The Terps, meanwhile, struggled to score for long stretches ... just as they have all season.
It's hard to see any of this changing until Williams stocks his team with a few blue-chip recruits. Given the same set of players, he might well be a better coach than Memphis' John Calipari. But when was the last time Williams had a group as talented as this Memphis team? Probably 2002.
The short-term prognosis for Maryland is fine. Gary will be back as will most of this year's team. Maryland will add two desperately needed inside players in Jordan Williams and James Padgett. If one of them (probably Williams) helps immediately, if Sean Mosley matures, if Landon Milbourne improves a bit more, if Eric Hayes shoots with a little more confidence, if Vasquez eschews the NBA, they could finish in the top half of the ACC next year.
We know Gary will maximize what he has and whip his crew to a few upsets. But it's equally obvious that without a better grade of talent, Maryland won't make deep runs into the NCAA tournament. They'll run into teams like Memphis in the second or third round and they'll be hopelessly outclassed.
So my questions to you are: Do you see any of this changing? Do you think there's anything philosophically wrong with the state of Maryland's program (or is Gary really kind of a noble figure)? Should Greivis come back?
Fear the Turtle, I suppose.
At some point during the second half, when Memphis was just breaking Maryland's press with ease and throwing alley-oops like they were playing against the Washington Generals, I began to wonder why some Terps fans have have decided to frame the argument this way: Either you embrace Gary Williams and pretend that his program and his methods are flawless, or you're a hater and an enabler and you're contributing to everything that's wrong and immoral with amateur athletics.
As you know, life is almost never that black and white. It was fun to watch Maryland rally around Williams this year, and you can understand why the players did so. When someone complains about recruiting, what they're really saying is the players the Terps have right now aren't quite good enough, so you can see why a Greivis Vasquez or a Dave Neal or a Landon Milbourne might take that personally and defend their coach. But holding the program to high standards, questioning it while at the same time rooting for it, doesn't make you a traitor. You'd think that Dick Cheney was running the Terrapin Club the way some people rage against anyone who dares suggest finishing 7th in the ACC isn't good enough.
This year ends, despite the Memphis loss, with pretty good vibes. But in the second half of that game, I couldn't help but wonder what it would be like if the two coaches could switch teams. Wouldn't it be fun to watch some of those athletes the Tigers have play in Williams flex offense? There might be some evidence out there that proves John Calipari is a dirty coach, but if there is, it hasn't surfaced in Memphis. All he's done is recruit blue chip athletes from all over the country and win basketball games. It's OK to embrace Gary Williams while also wondering why he doesn't want to do the things that Calipari does (or Roy Williams does, or Jim Boeheim does, or Jim Calhoun does) to get the best players? I'm not even talking about cheating. I'm talking about simply befriending AAU coaches, traveling constantly to scout players, calling kids as often as the NCAA allows, and selling them on the whole experience of Maryland athletics.
Williams absolutely hates talking about this kind of stuff, which I understand, but it's a reality of the the sport. Maybe the university and the admissions department fight you every step of the way when you try to sign players without stellar academic credentials, but if that's the case, you certainly shouldn't have one of the lowest graduation rates in the ACC. Gary and his supporters seem to want it both ways. During the season, I don't think anyone in the country cares more about his team than Williams does. He asks a lot of his players, and he gives a lot back. During the offseason, I think it's another story. I really, truly admire the man, and the last thing I want to see is for him to leave the program before he's ready, but I also don't think it's unfair to ask him to adapt with the times. Of course, sucking up to 17-year-old kids with pimples is demeaning for a coach who has won a national championship, but if Roy Williams can do it, so can Gary. I don't think it's going to change, because Gary's whole life, he's found success doing things his way, and certainly a know-nothing punk like me doesn't know what I'm talking about, at least in his eyes. But I reject the line of argument that says it has to be done exactly his way or Maryland will be led down the dark path toward ethics violations.
I'll address the Vasquez situation in a second, but first I want to talk about Sean Mosley. I really like this kid. He was a great blue chip recruit that Williams did land, and even if he doesn't blossom into a scorer -- which wasn't his role this year -- I think he has the chance to be a special player. He really tough, he's a tremendous rebounder, and he sees the floor so well, I could even see him playing some point guard if he wanted. It's not a coincidence that Maryland found stability the second half of the season when he entered the starting lineup. If I were him, I'd make a vow that I was going to shoot 1,000 jumpers a day between now and next season, and turn myself into a perimeter threat. Because right now, that seems like the one flaw in his game. He did average 25 points a game in high school, so maybe he'll grow more assertive next season, especially if Vasquez is gone.
Lastly, what can be said about Vasquez that hasn't been said already? He's a fascinating player, and honestly, there is no story I'd rather write in the pages of The Sun right now than one that allowed me to travel to Venezuela (preferably with Greivis) to see where he grew up and what forces shaped him into the fiery competitor he is. He's not a big fan of the media, though, and newspapers don't exactly have the kind of cash to throw around, so sadly I think it's going to exist only in my imagination. I'd like to see him come back, but he's like Williams in so many ways that you have to understand what you're getting: A stubborn, talented competitor who will thrill you some nights and hurt you others. I don't think his pre-game trash talk was really much of a factor in Memphis' play, but it didn't help that he didn't find his offensive game until the second half.
Let me throw this back at you with a few questions of my own: Can Maryland's program continue to thrive despite the fact that there is clearly tension between the head coach and the athletic department? How much did losing Billy Hahn and Jimmy Patsos hurt Williams on the recruiting trail? And shouldn't the school just go ahead and let the band play Gary Glitter's "Rock and Roll Part II" seeing as how the student body sings it a cappella anyway, adding in the "You Suck!" in all the appropriate places?
As you know, my wife is a Maryland grad (1998, Print Journalism) and a Terps fan, and she teared up at the Wake Forest game this year when Gary pumped his fist to the student section and when the students sang their own version of "Rock and Roll, Part II." You've got to love that kind of fan support, when defiant gestures and naughty words can make a woman nostalgic for all those yesterdays.
Admittedly missing Cole Field House,
Glad you brought up Mosley. Did you realize he had only scored in double figures once in the 13 games leading up to Memphis? I didn't. In fact, I had thought of his freshman season as a solid success. But really, how many future stars struggle that consistently to make shots? His strength is impressive for a guard, and I agree that he can be a valuable player without scoring 20 a game. But weren't Terps fans counting on him to be a major offensive force post-Vasquez? I think that's an uncertain hope at best given his freshman production.
I want to address Greivis' NBA potential before I get back to the Gary issue. Frankly, I would be surprised if pro general managers fall in love with him between now and June. He's a 6-foot-6 guard, so that works to his advantage, as does his chutzpah. But he's more clever than explosive in his forays to the basket, and erratic would be a kind way to describe his outside shooting. Sure, he cut his turnovers this season, but would you want him running the point in a league where the best guys drop three dimes for every ball they throw away? Can you win with a shooting guard who can't get all the way to the basket and couldn't shoot better than 32 percent from behind the college line?
I'm not saying the guy won't have a career, but I see him as a combo guard off the bench if everything breaks right. If not, he'll play overseas. That's a round about way of saying that I won't be surprised if he's back for a final ride in College Park. For what it's worth, ESPN draft guru Chad Ford pegs him as a bubble first rounder.
OK, enough Greivis. I live on the fence with my thoughts about Gary. I think he gets paid a lot of money to win basketball games and bring glory to Maryland. I think that in reality, you have to kiss lots of 18-year-old butt to do that. And yes, I suspect that Patsos and Hahn covered for Williams' distaste toward that part of the game.
Then I put myself in Gary's shoes. Imagine being one of the best in the world at your vocation but hearing constantly that you don't spend enough time prostrating yourself before spoiled 18-year-olds. Do you know how dumb most 18-year-olds (even the smart ones) really are? Can you imagine living and dying on their whims and the whims of their leechy AAU coaches and family members? So I think about that and then I think about all the capital Gary earned by transforming the program and winning a national title. If I had that kind of juice and were confronted with the reality of modern recruiting, I might just tell everybody to sod off. So yeah, I kind of admire the guy.
Do I think the tension with his own athletic department undermines him? I suppose it could make potential recruits question his job security. But I thought Debbie Yow did a fairly effective job of killing that strain of speculation last month. As long as Gary pulls out these kind of seasons (and it seems he can in perpetuity, even with really limited talent), he's pretty secure. So I think the perceived dissension will be an ongoing annoyance but not a crippling hindrance.
And yes, I think the Maryland band should Glitter away. What else you got?
I'm glad you're a numbers guy, because I have to be honest, I had no idea Mosley's scoring output was so low. I feel like one of those grizzled old baseball scouts who shows up at the field with a poorly-calibrated radar gun, reeking of scotch, and declares that some kid can absolutely play, based solely on "feel." My eyes and intuition tell me Mosley sees the floor well, and he plays great defense, but in the end, he was just like the rest of this team. He had trouble scoring baskets, and shot just 37 percent from the field. Those stats don't lie. Perhaps his potential lies somewhere in the middle between my fantasies and the actual stats, but if he's going to be in a position to lead this team in a few years, he's going to have to improve his offensive game. Period. That means hundreds of jumpers a day, if not 1,000. Maybe Gary Williams should give him a key to Comcast, the way that Juan Dixon got a key to Cole Field House, so he could shoot jumpers whenever he wanted. But it's important to point out that Dixon practically demanded a key. Williams didn't force it on him. Mosley has to want it just as bad.
Speaking of hitting 1,000 jumpers, if Greivis Vasquez really does want to play in the NBA, that's what he needs to work on. Because right now he doesn't shoot well enough to play shooting guard and he's not quick enough to play the point. And while another year in college might help his shooting and his maturity, I think he could probably play ball in Europe right now and make a good chunk of change, and no one in his right mind should fault him if he makes that choice. The fact that he's from Venezuela may actually help him, because plenty of Euro teams are wary of having too many American players on their rosters. He's competitive as hell, and I wish him well whatever he decides, but I think he's probably played his last game in College Park. By the way, since you brought up Chad Ford, I want to mention my favorite detail about him: He's a professor of conflict resolution at the University of Hawaii. Vasquez should have sought his counsel earlier this season when he was cursing out Maryland's fans after they booed him.
I have tremendous sympathy for Williams' Catch-22 in regards to recruiting, because I think 17-year-old high school athletes are truly knuckleheads of the highest order, and I say this because I was one. And there are as many virtuous AAU coaches out there as there are virtuous guys in Tony Soprano's and Marlo Standfield's crews. But just to play devil's advocate, isn't that part of the job, like it not? Everyone has to do stuff for their job they'd rather not do, even artists and authors. Think Philip Seymour Hoffman likes doing movie promotion, getting interviewed on the red carpet by people like Billy Bush? Think Philip Roth wants to go on book tours every time he publishes a novel? Of course not. They'd rather rather act and write. And Gary Williams would rather coach. But when you're at the top of your profession, it's not that simple.
I guess my final questions to you would be: What should our expectations be for Maryland's basketball program? Williams said this week that he prefers to let the results speak for themselves and that if he wasn't much of a recruiter, his teams wouldn't be in the NCAA tournament and wouldn't have gone to a pair of Final Fours. That's fair. But what should our expectations be? As I was listening to talk radio this morning (a foolish use of my time, I'll concede) I heard two pundits arguing that Maryland was the third-best program in the ACC, and that people should just calm down. Is Maryland still the third-best program in the conference? The Terps' NCAA performance would argue that, yes, the probably are. But the standings tell a different story. What do we want from Maryland and Williams in return for our dollars? Should the Terps be battling every year for a league title? Should they be competing for national championships? Or is that an unrealistic bar?
What's that you say, Johnny Holliday, Joltin' Joe Smith has left and gone away?
You've cut to the heart of the matter with your question about expectations. How good is good enough for Maryland basketball?
By any measure, Gary Williams' program remains solid, a threat to make the NCAA tournament every year. And yet, it's hard to argue that Maryland remains an elite program, as it was between 2001 and 2003. Maybe that was just a special group of players. We forget sometimes that Juan Dixon, Lonny Baxter and Steve Blake were not at the top of anyone's prospect lists. The fact that all three became elite college players at the same time was, well, a delightful fluke.
In fact, Williams never was a coach who stocked his program with prep superstars year after year. Even Joe Smith, who became national Player of the Year, was more a top-30 prospect than a consensus stud. Steve Francis was a super talent but took a circuitous route through junior college.
The programs that flirt with the Final Four every year -- North Carolina, Duke, UCLA, Kansas, Memphis -- recruit studs every year. It's that simple, has been since John Wooden owned the recruiting trail in the 1960s and 1970s. Otherwise, you're just hoping to find that magic mix of players every so often.
So maybe dissatisfied Maryland fans are just messed up because they view everything through the lens of 2002, which, let's face it, isn't a common lens. It doesn't help that two of the aforementioned heavyweights, Duke and Carolina, play in the same league. Even if Maryland is the third-best program in the ACC (I'd stick them behind Wake and about even with several others), the Terps are a long way from the top two and that distance isn't closing.
Should Gary be a better recruiter for $2 million a year? You could argue that. But I'm saying it was never the man's principal strength, so it's a little disingenuous to hang him for it now. In the big picture, he has brought a run of success and stability to his alma mater. For that, he has earned a very long rope. I don't think he's near the end of it.