COLLEGE PARK — COLLEGE PARK -- Playing in the National Invitation Tournament three out of four years might escape criticism at universities with modest athletic ambitions and less-than-rabid men's basketball fans.
But to many Maryland fans, missing the NCAA tournament has elicited tortured examinations on the Internet and talk radio of what went wrong and how it can be solved.
The reason for all the anguish is high expectations. When Gary Williams coached the Terrapins to the national championship in 2002, he raised the bar.
"You do it once, and there's the expectation you're going to do it again," ESPN analyst and former Maryland standout Len Elmore said. "That's part of the territory of taking the trophy and putting it in your display case."
The Terrapins played in the NIT in 2005 and 2006 before making it to the NCAA tournament's second round last season. Maryland travels to Minnesota to face the Golden Gophers of the Big Ten tonight in the first round of the NIT.
Terrapins message boards have skewered the program - questioning such things as recruiting and player management - since Maryland's opening-round loss to Boston College in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. "This program needs a complete 180 and quick," one fan posting said.
The Sun asked basketball analysts to assess Maryland's program, particularly recruiting, to see whether fans' concerns are warranted.
The experts said most programs have "down" periods and Williams - like all coaches - is simply better at some tasks than others. The coach is better known for developing moderate talent than attracting marquee high school recruits to College Park. Some supporters have been frustrated that top players in the talent-rich Baltimore-Washington corridor - notably current NBA stars Carmelo Anthony (Towson Catholic) and Rudy Gay (Archbishop Spalding) - have left the region to attend other schools.
"A good way to say it is Gary Williams constructs basketball teams to his personality," said Dave Telep, national recruiting director for scout.com. "Given the choice between a prima donna top-10 player or a blue-collar top-50 player, he'll take the blue-collar guy every time. That's his comfort level."
Not that Maryland hasn't tried to get top talent. Gay, for example, was heavily recruited by the Terrapins before opting to attend Connecticut, where he played for two seasons before going pro. "It was close, real close," Gay said in 2004. "Maryland is a great school. I don't think it suits me best, basketball-wise."
Williams says Maryland's record must be weighed against other schools for perspective. "This decade, from 2001 to 2008, we have done as much as any team in the country," the coach said before the Boston College game. "I know what I have done this year, how hard I worked. That is what keeps you going if you are in coaching a long time."
Telep said some help is on the way. He said incoming recruit Sean Mosley of St. Frances "is tailor-made for Maryland because he's a winner, a worker. All the pins are set up right, and it's now about indoctrinating him into the Maryland system."
Telep said that's the way Williams works best - through indoctrination.
Maryland's national championship team was not composed of blue-chip athletes but rather of players who needed seasoning. Steve Blake couldn't get a scholarship to North Carolina State, Juan Dixon redshirted as a freshman and Lonny Baxter started slowly his first year.
"He [Williams] develops guys into players," Elmore said.
Maryland must compete in the ACC against Duke and North Carolina, recruiting powerhouses with top resources and reputations.
In interviews, local players provided all manner of reasons for not choosing Maryland. Forward DaJuan Summers of McDonogh said he picked Georgetown a few years ago because of a natural connection with Hoyas coach John Thompson III. Guard Nolan Smith, from Prince George's County, said he selected Duke largely because of former Blue Devils guard Johnny Dawkins. Dawkins was a close friend and former NBA teammate of Smith's late father, Derek.
"All my friends are at Maryland - Adrian Bowie, Shane Walker," Smith said. "But Johnny Dawkins put Duke in my heart."
Other stars who attended high school in the region include Kansas State forward Michael Beasley and former Texas forward Kevin Durant, now of the Seattle SuperSonics.
"You always know there are good players in that area," said George Mason athletic director Tom O'Connor, a former Loyola AD. Two years ago, all five of George Mason's starters on its Final Four team were from Maryland. "There's a good relationship between our coaching staff and the high schools and AAU coaches in the area," O'Connor said.
For Williams and other coaches, it's all about finding a recruit who is the right "fit," said college basketball analyst Mike Gminski, who played in the NBA and at Duke.
"Not everybody can play for Gary Williams and not everybody can play for Coach K [Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski]," Gminski said. "You search those kids out, and if it's a mesh and a fit, then it works well."