EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- One by one the shackles crumble, one by one the penalties disappear. Last night Maryland returned to television, and not as a subject of a "60 Minutes" investigation. This wasn't just another victory. This was one more backward glance at probation.
The 76-66 triumph over Providence wasn't suitable for family viewing, but no one said this would be easy. The rallying cry of the one-year live TV ban was "No Lights, No Cameras, Just Action." Coming out of the dark, sensory overload was clearly one reason the Terps shot 34 percent.
Whatever, they're 4-0 now, and slowly but surely, they're regaining their good standing in the college basketball world. Television is but one element, of course. The signing of top recruits is another. This year, the Terps return to the ACC tournament. Next year, with luck, the NCAAs.
"You make steps," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "You don't come back right away. This was a big thing for us. The players can say what they want. They were a little shaken up. They had their pictures taken [for ESPN] during pre-game practice. That hasn't happened in two years.
"They saw [ESPN announcer] Bill Raftery. That's different. I'm usually out there yelling at them [in the shootaround]. North Carolina walks out, it's just another game. It wasn't another game for us. We had to show some people we're still alive."
Oh, they're alive all right, and it's amazing how they've reversed places with football in the minds of the athletic department. The football team was dispirited and 2-9, and now its coach is in trouble. The basketball team already has twice as many wins, and now its coach apologizes to no one.
A year ago, no one could have imagined athletic director Andy Geiger seeking refuge from another Joe Krivak death watch by watching his basketball pariahs at the Meadowlands Arena. "It's been a grind," said Geiger, who is nursing a month-long cold. "But I'm going to sleep tonight."
It isn't completely fair measuring football against basketball, for football's problem is wins and losses, not NCAA violations. Still, as Geiger noted, "It's just fun to see something that's kind of an up. The other thing is kind of different."
Indeed, the comparison is inevitable, especially because Williams meets two criteria Krivak does not. One, he gets his team playing hard, thereby maximizing his talent. Two, he creates playing time for freshmen like John Walsh and Geno Soto, so the future always is now.
Walt Williams is the only legitimate major-college recruit in the starting lineup. Vince Broadnax was a walk-on. Garfield Smith attended two high schools and junior college. Kevin McLinton and Evers Burns were better known as football players in high school.
This is the cast Williams inherited from Bob Wade. This is the cast that knocked off a Big East opponent last night. Yes, Providence (2-4) lost to Chaminade and Brown. But Maryland won despite 46 missed shots, 15 missed foul shots, 24 fouls and 18 turnovers. It wasn't pretty, but it was a start.
"Someone said to me tonight in the next two years the program is just going to explode," Geiger said. "You can feel it. He plays young players. He mixes in guys right away. This will be a deeper team every week. That's how he builds a program."
Make no mistake, this is not a great team. Walt Williams (20 points) is the only true scorer, and last night he shot 6-for-18. Thus, the Terps could not hold an early 15-4 lead, could not pull away until the final moments. In the second half they shot only 28 percent.
Still, six players had five or more rebounds, including junior Chris Kerwin, the transfer from Old Dominion who sat out last year. McLinton scored 16 points. Burns added 13. Broadnax was his usual pesky self. Maryland was sloppy throughout, but trailed only once.
"Offensively, we have a long way to go," Gary Williams said. "We weren't smooth. We missed some shots we usually make. There are some things that really worry you. But as long as they play with the effort they've shown the first four games, I think we'll be in most of the games."
lTC PD Again, this won't be easy. The Terps host West Virginia on Satur
day, and their December schedule also includes Louisville and possibly third-ranked Arizona. Then they visit No. 17 Georgia Tech, host No. 1 Duke and visit North Carolina State in their first three ACC games.
The recovery will be slow, and at times painful. Indeed, it &L; probably will be a while before Maryland is truly competitive with a team like fifth-ranked North Carolina, which trounced Seton Hall 83-54 in the second game of the Big East-ACC Challenge last night.
No matter. A year ago, the Terps were still fretting over losing five days of practice as the result of an NCAA violation. Last night, they just celebrated being on TV. Walt Williams said he never thought about it during the game. But Burns said, "I was going to play my heart out."
"I've never used anything like that as a motivating factor," Gary Williams said. "I've never made any excuses. When you set artificial goals to get your players up for a game, that's the wrong thing to do. We need to have pride in ourselves. When you have that, you come out and play."
Meanwhile, the shackles crumble.
And the penalties disappear.