Terps must throttle back to go farther

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Gary Williams finds himself in a strange and ironic position after a decade as the basketball coach at the University of Maryland.

He has taken a program that was soaked in scandal and defeat and turned it into one of the nation's best, as evidenced by the Terps' four trips to the Sweet 16 since 1994 and the steady stream of blue-chip recruits saying yes to his scholarship offers.

But after a fourth straight Sweet 16 loss against St. John's on Thursday night, it's clear some changes are in order.

If the Terps couldn't reach the Final Four or even the Elite Eight this season with their strongest team in years and an enviable NCAA tournament draw, it's hard to see them going that far in any season as long as they continue to play the same way.

Their high-pressure, up-tempo-or-else style is loads of fun, helps recruiting and has served as the backbone of their dramatic rise, but it apparently isn't going to get them where they want to go.

That's not intended as a criticism of Williams, who has done a fine job of reviving the pro gram and making winters a lot more interesting around here. Any fans complaining too hard about his postseason failings have lost perspective. This is a solid program.

But it's time for Williams to look in the mirror, recognize what's happening and make adjustments, as any top coach would.

There's a fundamental flaw in the Terps' style, which relies on forcing turnovers that create scoring opportunities and a hully-gully pace. Quite simply, it's not a self-sufficient style. It involves the opposition's cooperation. It counts on the other team's inability to handle the Terps' pressure.

Other top teams don't require help from the opposition. Duke comes to town and says, "We don't care what you do, because here's what we do, good luck." Same with North Carolina, Kentucky -- you name it. Those teams couldn't care less what the opposition does.

It's true in all sports, really. The best teams hardly even pay attention to their opponents. They just play their game. It's usually enough to win.

The Terps can't say that. Smart teams that handle their pressure often give them fits. Witness their horrible stretches this season against Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina (in the ACC tournament semifinals) and St. John's.

It's time for them to turn to a style less dependent on the opposition, a style that holds firm in any situation.

In short, it's time for them to slow down a bit. As much fun as their all-out, open-court style is, it has come at the expense of a quality half-court offense. That's no problem against lesser teams, but it's always a problem in March and against top opponents.

Enough already.

Williams needs to start emphasizing a more traditional style with a solid half-court game. That doesn't fit Williams' intense personality, and it might hurt recruiting, but it needs to happen -- not a wholesale overhaul so much as a tweaking, taking things down a gear or two, resulting in more control.

If you're wondering whether a coach can make such a change after building a winning program using a certain style, check out Jim Calhoun and Connecticut. The Huskies also used to play and win with an open-court style, but, like Maryland, they always lost at the wrong time. The light bulb came on a few years ago, when Calhoun realized his team was vulnerable to too many variables, not the least of which was the quality of the opposition.

The Huskies still run now and then, but they have a stronger half-court game and a more traditional style and not coincidentally, they're probably the only team in the country capable of challenging Duke this year. They're just more substantial than they were in their previous incarnation.

Williams and the Terps would benefit from a similar transformation. Their style has let them down once too often. They need a better half-court offense if they're going to go far in the NCAAs. It's that simple.

True, Rick Pitino's formidable Kentucky teams also relied on forcing turnovers with their pressure defense, much as the Terps do now. But those teams had solid half-court options that often came through in March, when games inevitably get more deliberate.

Whether Williams can institute such a change is one issue, and whether even he wants to is another. There's no telling at this point, with the disappointment of St. John's still so fresh. But the Terps had no business falling 26 points behind a comparable opponent. Change is all but mandated in the wake of such a debacle.

Oh, sure, the Terps can continue to play the same style, win 20 games a year and take their best shot in the NCAA tournament every March. Their talent level assures them of that much success.

But their talent level also demands that they shoot for higher goals, and reaching those goals is more likely if they adjust to a somewhat slower, more traditional style.

The time has come. Something has to give. Losing in the Sweet 16 is getting old.

Roadblock to Final Four Since Lefty Driesell vowed to make Maryland the "UCLA of the East" upon his hiring before the 1969-70 season, Maryland is one of only three current Atlantic Coast Conference members, along with Clemson and Wake Forest, that have not made the Final Four. (Florida State made the Final Four in 1972, before it joined the ACC.) Teams representing the ACC have accounted for 22 Final Four appearances and six national titles (in boldface) since 1970:

North Carolina (9): 1972, 1977, 1981, 1982, 1991, 1993, 1995, 1997, 1998

Duke (8): 1978, 1986, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1994

North Carolina State (2): 1974, 1983

Virginia (2): 1981, 1984

Georgia Tech (1): 1990

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