DALLAS -- "I wasn't just blowing smoke all week," Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams was saying late Friday night, walking briskly through a corridor at Reunion Arena on his way to the team bus. "I really thought we had a chance to win."
Well, his Terps did have a chance to beat Michigan in the Midwest Regional semifinals. Forget that they were outscored 38-18 in one stretch and trailed by as many as 21 points in the second half. Michigan was bored, foul-prone, sloppy and beatable.
The Terps couldn't take advantage because they shot just 36 percent from the field and a devastating 53 percent from the free-throw line. Had they shot even just their season averages -- 46 percent from the field and 69 percent from the line -- they could have put a scare into the Fab (Almost) Five.
(Incidently, watch the Fabs give Arkansas all it wants today in the regional final. The formidable Razorbacks won't bore the Fabs as did Pepperdine, Texas and Maryland. Final score: Arkansas 88, Michigan 84.)
But Williams was anything but downcast after his Terps finally went sour in the Sweet 16. How could he be upset? His young players will be that much better for making noise in the tournament a year ahead of schedule. The good pub will help Williams' pitch for such prospects as Dunbar senior Rodney Elliott, the 6-foot-8 rebounder the Terps need.
nTC As well, Williams will find the text of the 78-71 loss to Michigan invaluable as a teaching aid, offering a complete checklist of what the Terps need to do to improve, individually and collectively.
Almost as if the whole thing was orchestrated, not one of the Terps' shortcomings went unexposed.
At the top of the list was their sheer lack of muscle. The Terps shot poorly primarily because they were pushed around on offense, winding up farther from the basket than they wanted to be. It was a problem all season against top-caliber opponents. Michigan's Ray Jackson, Jimmy King and Juwan Howard were particularly aggressive.
"I want our players to look at that," Williams said. "Those [Michigan] players weren't that strong when they got to college, but they've worked hard in the weight room. Joe [Smith] is 220 now; he needs to get to 235-240. Johnny Rhodes needs to get bigger. Exree Hipp obviously does. They all need to get stronger."
They need more help, too. This team simply didn't have enough big-time players. The talent drop-off was huge after the starting five, which scored 81 percent of the team's points.
The Terps struggled all season in games in which one or more oftheir starters didn't produce. The margin for error was just too thin.
"We've had two good recruiting classes," Williams said. "Obviously, we could use two more."
Just as obviously, each of the five starters, as talented as they are, has off-season work to do. Williams should give each a tape of the Michigan game.
Smith is a fabulous talent -- the power forward on the Dream Team at the Sydney Olympics in the year 2000, one scout said -- but he needs to work on his post defense, as Howard and Massachusetts' Marcus Camby demonstrated, and he needs to find more ways to get open for entry passes.
Hipp's Friday night performance mirrored his season: moments of brilliance followed by long periods in which he disappeared. He needs to learn to stay in the game, however one does that.
Simpkins needs to become a more consistent playmaker. The Terps shined when they ran their offense and got good shots, but they struggled too often -- such as in the decisive stretch against Michigan -- when they didn't work hard enough for the better shot. It is Simpkins' job to make sure that changes next season.
Rhodes needs to spend more time in the gym, working on his jumper. His 4-for-14 shooting night against Michigan was a fitting end to a season in which he shot 42 percent, lowest among the starters. Pro scouts love his defense, passing and rebounding, but a shooting guard has to shoot.
Keith Booth also needs to develop his shot, as his 3-for-11 free-throw shooting against Michigan demonstrated. A shot is all he's missing, though. His marvelous freshman season was overshadowed by Smith's, but, with his toughness, confidence and assortment of big man/little man skills, he could wind up the better player. "Keith is just scratching the surface," Williams said. Give him a jumper, and he makes the NBA.
Booth, Smith and all the Terps need to work on these skills in the off-season, because, clearly, their days of surprising people are over. From now on, they'll play with the burden of great expectations. They'll be a Top 25 team when next season starts, a high pick in the ACC.
"We know what's coming," Williams said, "and that's fine. After all we've been through here the last three or four years, I'll happily deal with expectations. Bring 'em on."
It said a lot about the Terps that a slew of knowledgeable basketball people, Williams included, thought Maryland could beat Michigan now. The idea wasn't nearly as crazy as it sounded -- before or after the game. But in the end, the loss may prove more helpful than the two tournament wins that preceded it.
"We can learn from this," Williams said. "We can learn a whole lot from this."