SAN ANTONIO - When Rick Barnes and the Texas Longhorns showed up late for practice at the Alamodome yesterday, Gary Williams had an easy target.
The tardy Longhorns caused a ripple effect, cutting into Williams' time on the court with his Maryland Terrapins. Williams let it rip.
"Rick was an assistant with me at Ohio State. I can see he hasn't changed. He was always a little late back then," Williams said, leaning into the microphone of a radio sportscaster from Austin, ensuring juicy air time.
"You can tell him that, too. He's the reason I have to hurry here because he got lost coming from Austin, Texas. We come all the way from Washington D.C., and no problems."
Barnes and his Longhorns may carry the No. 1 seed into this NCAA South Regional, but it didn't take long to figure out who the real heavy hitters are around here. They're in the "other game."
Williams and Tom Izzo have led Maryland and Michigan State to NCAA titles two of the past three years.
The Terps reign, but Izzo's Spartans were kings in 2000.
Both coaches set tough standards and the most lofty expectations and then, the real test was passed by both hard-driving gym rats. They met those expectations. Both the Terps and Spartans were favorites who finally won it all.
Williams did it with Juan Dixon, Lonny Baxter, Chris Wilcox and Byron Mouton. Izzo rode Mateen Cleaves, Charlie Bell and Morris Peterson.
Combined, the Spartans and Terps have made five Final Four appearances in the past four years. The Spartans' streak went from 1999 to 2001. The Terps are technically still alive to try to match it - but to think the Terps have a chance, you must overlook the brash and stunning way in which the Spartans absolutely flushed Florida (No. 2 seed in the South) right out of the office pool.
Like the Spartans, who were hurt by injuries and shuffling players into new roles this season, the Terps were up and down. But like the Spartans, who had a quality win against Kentucky in December and a 4-0 streak to end the regular season, the Terps showed more than just flashes of greatness. The win over Duke was terrific. The win over Xavier was energetic, fluid, like the Terps knew what they had to do.
The Terps have a chance against Michigan State, if Steve Blake is the experienced quarterbacking factor Izzo thinks he can be and if the Terps can play like they did against Duke and against Xavier. Of course, the Terps were buoyed by Drew Nicholas' etched-in-history buzzer-beater against UNC-Wilmington to get out of the first round.
But does anyone doubt that Williams and the Terps would have preferred to see Billy Donovan's perimeter shooters in tonight's showdown, not Izzo's Spartans?
The Spartans are surging, eager to create an identity for this year's crew that echoes the Final Four teams that Michigan State fielded from 1999 to 2001. That was before the Spartans got so good and recruiting so rich that Izzo's players were the kind who could start jumping to the NBA. They lost Jason Richardson that way and Zach Randolph, creating a vacuum.
In many ways, Maryland and Michigan State mirror each other. The two programs have scrapped and clawed and finally soared, thanks to hard-nosed leaders Izzo and Williams.
"The book on Gary Williams? He sweats a lot. He's really into it," Izzo said, laughing about his friend before getting serious. "His team will not play soft. They might play bad at times, but they won't play soft. There will be effort put forth because these things [like being soft] are illegal in Maryland."
Williams said Izzo followed a legend (Judd Heathcote) at Michigan State and has taken the program a step further.
"The Big Ten, there are a lot of big teams in that league, and they change every year," Williams said. "One year Indiana is up, Ohio State, Illinois, Wisconsin. To keep Michigan State good every year in a league like that and to stay one of the top three teams, that's hard to do. Dean Smith did that in the ACC, had one of the top three teams for 30 years. Now Tom's kind of got that program into that level."
Admiration is terrific. It's the kind of feeling that can quickly transform into fierce competitiveness come tip-off time.
It's no wonder then that tonight's showdown between the No. 6-seeded Terps and the No. 7-seeded Spartans has the feel of a heavyweight bout.
OK, maybe a light-heavyweight bout.
Duke, Arizona and Kentucky may be the numbing constants at the top of college basketball, but Michigan State and Maryland share something even more interesting:
They're the blue collar/second tier elite whose championship-fired hubris is real enough to count on this time of the year.
"It sets a different bar when you win it, but you have to put each year separately. That national championship is never going to go away, but I told the guys at the start of this season, we're not going to live in the past," Williams said.
Now it's the business of sustaining that elite level. The way Michigan State dismantled Florida and the way Maryland dispensed with Xavier to force this matchup might seem a little weird, a little suspicious.
But consider this: Four schools in this year's tournament have made Sweet 16 appearances the past five of six years. Look who's in this group: Michigan State, Maryland, Kentucky and Duke (which actually has appeared in all six.)
So maybe the Spartans and Terps are where they're supposed to be. Alive. A threat.
This should be good.