MEMPHIS, TENN. — MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Gary Williams isn't going anywhere.
The question is: Where is Maryland going?
This season ended much like the last and even the one before, with the Terps staggering to the finish, disappointing their followers.
The expectations this time were created not by the presence of Joe Smith or four senior starters, but a 17-2 record that everyone knew was an illusion.
Still, that doesn't excuse Maryland's losses to North Carolina State and the College of Charleston in the ACC and NCAA tournaments.
Williams' explanation -- that his team simply wore down after playing at such a high level early in the season -- is only partly sufficient.
"Somewhere along the line, we hit a wall," Williams said. "We had to do a lot of things to get this team into position where we could compete with everyone. I'm not sure it didn't take a lot out of us.
"This team had to be emotional, flying around all the time. We didn't do that the last three weeks. We got a little tired."
Why did they get tired?
Because their relentless style is difficult to sustain.
Because Williams trusted only seven of the players he recruited.
And because it might be difficult for the Terps to maintain their mental edge under Williams' white-hot, season-long intensity.
Smith's second team reached the Sweet 16, but peaked early. Last season's team never reached its potential. This season's failed to fulfill its early promise.
The pattern is unmistakable, even if Smith's team suffered in part because Williams missed two games with pneumonia.
What you see is what you get in Garyland. In 19 seasons as a Division I coach, he has never taken a team beyond the Sweet 16. His teams go only so far.
So, has he run his course at Maryland?
Is it time for him to leave his alma mater?
Ignore the rumors that Williams is headed to Ohio State or Rutgers, and consider his life at College Park. His seven-year rollover contract practically ensures lifetime security. And his salary is between $500,000 and $600,000.
Williams, 52, probably would depart only if the program took a downward turn. And that could happen -- his two top recruits for next season, Terence Morris and Juan Dixon, have yet to qualify academically.
If Morris and Dixon were forced to sit out a year, next season's team essentially would be the same as this one, only without Keith Booth. And even with Booth, this team wasn't nearly good enough.
"Our talent was right on the edge," Williams acknowledged. "We were rated -- what? -- eighth in the league, 75th in the country. We had to get a lot of effort out a lot of people to get past that. We did, but we couldn't sustain it."
And that's not going to change, even with Laron Cephas and 7-foot center Mike Mardesich becoming eligible. The Terps badly need Morris, Dixon and another academic question, Mark Karcher. Otherwise, they could be in trouble.
Of course, similar doom was predicted this season, and all Williams did was take Maryland to its fourth straight NCAA tournament, a streak only North Carolina and Wake Forest can match in the ACC.
He obviously is doing something right.
And for those who won't be satisfied until the Terps make a Final Four, keep in mind that only one ACC team other than North Carolina or Duke has reached that pinnacle since 1984 -- Georgia Tech in '90.
Perhaps it's enough that Williams virtually rebuilt the program from scratch, and maintained a level of success. But his teams keep leaving you with this gnawing feeling, this sense that they're capable of more.
This group wasn't.
Sarunas Jasikevicius and Matt Kovarik are borderline ACC players. Obinna Ekezie is still developing. Terrell Stokes appears to be on his own planet.
Then again, these are the players Williams recruited. And two of them, Stokes and Laron Profit, were dumb enough to break curfew at the ACC tournament, resulting in their benchings at the start of the loss to Charleston.
Here was Maryland, on the verge of reaching its first ACC tournament final in 13 years, and there were Stokes and Profit, thinking they were Joe Namath the week of Super Bowl III.
It appeared to be an isolated incident -- "We did things right all the way through this year before," Williams said. Everyone loved Maryland's chemistry, but with a coach as volatile as Williams, chemistry is fragile.
Last year's seniors tuned him out; Stokes and Profit are only sophomores. Stokes might be lacking physically, but Profit could develop into a star if he had Booth's maturity. It's Williams' job to draw that out of him.
In fairness, this isn't just a Maryland problem. Coppin State coach Fang Mitchell is so frustrated by today's youth, he seems to suspend half his team every year -- and he's competing in the humble MEAC, not the glitzy ACC.
Williams appeared to communicate better with his players this season, but he still needs to get better still. It would help him with recruiting. It would help him keep a team hungry.
Love him or loathe him, he figures to be Maryland's coach into the next century. Williams likes to point out that his eventual replacement won't necessarily do better; in fact, he could do worse.
But that's not the issue here.
The question isn't how good Maryland can be without Gary Williams, but how good Maryland can be with him.
Only by taking the program to the next level will he produce the desired answer.
Pub Date: 3/15/97