With Williams, UM marches to winning beat

THE BALTIMORE SUN

For Wake Forest coach Dave Odom, the watershed moment came Jan. 18. Maryland, 0-3 in the ACC, defeated Wake at Cole Field House, 73-51.

"I remember walking off the court and telling [Maryland assistant coach] Billy Hahn that it was amazing that they had been able to bring the team to the level they were playing at that early in the season," Odom said.

For ESPN college basketball analyst Dan Bonner, the watershed moment came Feb. 1. Maryland, still only 3-4 in the conference, defeated Virginia at Cole, 91-79.

"I thought that was a team as well-prepared to play -- strategically, tactically, emotionally -- as any team I've seen in a long time," Bonner said. "They took Virginia out of everything Virginia wanted to do. And Virginia is not a bad team."

Different games, same theme.

Preparation. Coaching. Gary Williams.

Odom said this is Williams' finest coaching job in the 11 years they have competed against each other in the ACC. Bonner, an analyst with Raycom/Jefferson-

Pilot as well as ESPN, said he will vote for Williams for ACC Coach of the Year -- an honor Williams has never received.

Even before Maryland upset Duke on Feb. 9, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said, "Gary has probably done as good a job as anybody in the league." And today against North Carolina, the 1999-2000 Terps can become the first Maryland team to win eight straight ACC games in one season.

Could this be the season that Maryland reaches the ACC tournament final for the first time since 1983-84? Could this be the season Williams advances beyond the NCAA Sweet 16 for the first time in his 21-year career as a collegiate head coach?

All that remains to be seen, but Williams already has taken a team that plays no seniors further than many expected. The Terps (20-7, 9-4) not only have posted their fourth straight 20-win season, but also are within one victory of their third straight season of 10 or more ACC wins -- a school record.

True, the ACC is in a down cycle. True, Williams always seems to coach better when expectations are minimal. True, Maryland's talent is probably better than people realized -- who could have imagined that Terence Morris would be the Terps' third-leading scorer?

It's only February. Few will remember this team if it falters in tournament play. The 1996-97 Terps started 17-2 but ended the season in disappointment, losing to the College of Charleston in the first round of the NCAAs. Ditto for last season's Terps, who went 28-6 but were humiliated by St. John's in the Sweet 16.

Still, Williams deserves credit for rallying this team after its 0-3 ACC start, for developing an improved half-court offense and -- perhaps most of all -- for de-emphasizing his cherished full-court trap with a team that probably is too young to handle it.

"He has changed up his defense," said WBAL radio analyst Paul Baker, a former college coach. "He has always been General Custer -- charge! You could say, 'But, General, there are 40,000 Indians over the ridge ready to attack and destroy us.' And he'd sound the cavalry charge and say, 'Shut up.'

"All of a sudden, Maryland is a team that makes you stop and think. It doesn't come at you in waves anymore. Gary seems a little more under control in his thought processes, more like an old-fashioned coach rather than a frenetic go-go-go guy."

Odom, too, sees a difference.

"The biggest change is that they're playing better half-court man-to-man," he said. "The full-court pressure has always been good. But I always felt that if we could get to the half-court level, we'd have a chance to get good shots. This year's team doesn't allow that. They continue to blanket you even at the half-court level."

So, is Williams becoming more flexible now that he is a grandfather nearing his 55th birthday, the third-oldest coach in the ACC? Did the loss to St. John's convince him that he needed to try a different style?

Well, Williams still believes in the full-court trap, even though he has been criticized in the past for using it too extensively. He said the difference this season is that he needed to adjust to his talent. And by trapping less frequently, the Terps are in better position to set up their half-court defense.

"We're still pressing. We're just not trapping as much," Williams said. "It's a young team. It takes a while. This team is very comfortable playing very tough man-to-man -- full-court back to half-court. It has developed its own style."

The same goes on the offensive end, where Maryland faced a crossroads after attempting 27 three-pointers -- too many for Williams' liking -- in its Jan. 26 loss at North Carolina.

That defeat dropped the Terps to 2-4 in the ACC, and marked the fifth time in six games that they attempted fewer free throws than their opponent. With one day to prepare for Florida State, Williams conducted one of the best and hardest practices he can remember. The next day in Tallahassee, center Lonny Baxter scored 22 points in the first half, and the inside game took off.

Baxter has evolved into the ACC's second-leading rebounder. Juan Dixon the second-leading scorer. And freshman point guard Steve Blake has helped steady both the transition game and Williams' oft-maligned half-court offense.

"Blake does a good job getting the ball where it needs to be, when it needs to be there," Bonner said. "But it's not just Blake. Maryland does as good a job feeding the ball into the post as any team in the league."

As with the half-court defense, Williams said the half-court offense has improved out of necessity. With Steve Francis and Laron Profit now in the NBA, Maryland can't always play an up-tempo style.

"We're better in the half-court because we know we have to be," Williams said. "Last year we felt we could score off transition, score off traps. The urgency wasn't there to run a good half-court offense."

But the urgency is there now. The Terps ran numerous options off their basic flex offense in their 98-87 victory at Duke, and attained their highest point total against the Blue Devils since the 1982-83 season.

Bonner said a team can't help but succeed in the half-court when it has an outside threat like Dixon to complement an inside force like Baxter. And Morris, while not dominant, is all over the stat sheet, ranking in the ACC top 10 in five categories.

"Last year when they went into the St. John's game and got ignominiously defeated, I would have bet money that this was the high point of Gary Williams' career, and it would start to go downward," Baker said.

Instead, Williams came back hungrier, and so did his team. Odom said he can sense Maryland's passion "night in and night out." All of Williams' teams play hard, but this one does it with such consistency, effort is never an issue.

Is this his best coaching job? Time will tell. Williams is proud that his early teams at Maryland competed hard under NCAA sanctions. He is proud that last year's team posted a school-record 28 victories. But this team is a different type of Williams team, and it continues to win, anyway.

What greater satisfaction can there be for a coach?

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