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COLLEGE PARK — COLLEGE PARK - The forecasts for the season have been discouraging. His critics have gained strength, in their numbers and their intensity. Is this really a good way to celebrate a 20th anniversary?

At age 63, Gary Williams doesn't think it is fair for a coach who has won a national championship and 604 games to be put into this uncomfortable position of having to defend his record.

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Yet there he is, doing just that.

"We've won on a consistent basis. I'm proud of that. I'm proud of building this place - men's basketball built this place," Williams said, sitting in his office at the 6-year-old Comcast Center.

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"I'm proud of taking a program that was the lowest of any [established] Division I program in the country and leapfrogged a lot of teams in the ACC to get to where we could win a national championship. Those are facts."

But as the memory of those two straight Final Four appearances and the program's first national title in 2002 begin to fade, another fact is constantly brought up: The Terps have gone to the National Invitation Tournament in three of the past four seasons.

What's worse, many believe they won't even get that far this season.

"They [critics] have every right to give their opinion, but it's just an opinion," said Williams, whose team will play a preseason game today against Northwood University (Fla.), a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics school, at Comcast Center and open the regular season Friday at home against Bucknell. "We have the right to play games and prove how good we are."

Asked where the program is headed going into the 2008-09 season, Williams doesn't blink.

"We tied for fifth [at 8-8] in a very tough conference last year; that's where we are until we play another game," he said. "People forget two years ago we won 25 games, we beat Davidson in the first round of the NCAA. People forget that, because everyone has dwelled on the NIT."

With the Terps picked to finish in the bottom half of the Atlantic Coast Conference - one publication had them as low as 11th out of 12 teams - the graduation of frontcourt stalwarts James Gist and Bambale Osby will turn Maryland into a perimeter team that will have to rely on its defense and quickness.

Of the top eight players, seven are guards, including junior Greivis Vasquez, who led the Terps in scoring, as well as the ACC in assists and turnovers.

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"I think you have to look at your talent and how to get your best players on the court," Williams said. "That is something I am definitely looking at, and I've played that way [with three guards or more] for quite a bit of my career. We have to figure out what is best for our team."

Doug Gottlieb, a college basketball analyst for ESPN, points out Maryland is one of a handful of programs - including Georgia Tech, Syracuse and Oklahoma State, where Gottlieb finished his career - that didn't build on going to the Final Four or winning a national championship.

"The past few years, Maryland just hasn't been a relevant program - they went from being one of the uber-elite, just outside the top five programs of all time, to now being an afterthought," Gottlieb said. "It's kind of sad and amazing, and it can make you angry all at once."

What infuriates Williams is how many have forgotten what kind of shape the program was in when he returned to his alma mater from Ohio State in the spring of 1989. The season before he arrived, the Terps went 1-13 in the ACC under Bob Wade, who was fired amid an NCAA investigation that led to a three-year probation.

"We had the most severe sanction given by the NCAA from that point forward; that's how hard it was," Williams said. "There are a lot of short memories out there. That was much harder [than what is happening now]; it's not even close."

Still, that was 20 years ago, a lifetime in a coach's career, and Williams then was still considered one of the game's up-and-comers. Now at an age when many contemplate retirement, Williams is firm about his own future.

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There are no plans for walking away, with a contract that runs through June 2012.

"I've never given any thought on when to quit," said Williams, who holds the school record for wins with 397. "The one thing I know is that I don't want to cheat the game. The game has been good to me, and I wouldn't want to be in a situation where I thought I wasn't any good to this program and school."

Junior guard Eric Hayes said of Williams: "What he's done for this school and this program, I don't see how they could have any pressure on his job security at all."

There was a three-week span last spring when some wondered whether Williams might have reached the breaking point. It came when junior college transfer Tyree Evans asked out of his commitment after his history of problems with the law surfaced and Gus Gilchrist left (later resurfacing at South Florida) without having ever played a game.

"Things happen across the country; sometimes you can't just look at College Park," Williams said last month. "There were a lot worse things going on this summer [across the country.] But here we are."

Given the talent that remains, he is possibly facing the toughest coaching job of his 30-year career. Those who are optimistic about this season, who say that Williams is at his best when things appear at their worst and that he coaches better than most with lesser talent, might get some disagreement from the coach himself.

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"I was at my best when we had four NBA players, went to the Final Four and won a national championship," he said of a team that included Juan Dixon, Steve Blake, Chris Wilcox and Lonny Baxter.

Williams also deflects the criticism he has received for the team's poor graduation rate, noting that eight of his past 10 seniors have received their diplomas. Dave Neal, the only senior on this year's team, is expected to graduate in December.

Truth is, all Williams would like is a clean slate, starting Friday night.

"I think every year you have to prove yourself now," Williams said. "I know I can coach. I've coached the ultimate. I won a national championship. There's 11 active coaches that have won a national championship. It can't be that easy. You can't say I can't coach. You can judge this year and how I do this year. For anyone to say anything else is ridiculous."

NORTHWOOD

@MARYLAND

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Preseason game

Today, 2 p.m.

maryland at a glance

COACH: : Gary Williams, 20th season at Maryland (397-215), 30th overall (604-343)

AFFILIATION: : Atlantic Coast Conference

2007-08: : 19-15, 8-8 in ACC (tied for fifth); lost to Boston College, 71-68, in the first round of the ACC tournament; lost to Syracuse, 88-72, in the second round of the National Invitation Tournament

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RADIO: : 1300 AM, 105.7 FM

ARENA: : Comcast Center (17,950)

CONSENSUS ACC FAVORITE: : North Carolina

CONSENSUS MARYLAND PICK: : Eighth

STARTERS LOST: : 2

STARTING LINEUP CANDIDATES: : G Greivis Vasquez; G Eric Hayes; G Sean Mosley, C Braxton Dupree, F Landon Milbourne

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BACKCOURT: : Because of a lack of frontcourt depth, the Terps will likely play more of a three-guard and even a four-guard set. Junior Hayes returns to the point after playing mostly off the ball last season, while junior Vasquez will play more on the wing to take advantage of his scoring. Freshman Mosley gives Maryland athleticism. Sophomores Adrian Bowie and Cliff Tucker will also receive considerable time and are two of the team's most explosive players going to the basket.

FRONTCOURT: : The graduation of James Gist and Bambale Osby, as well as the early summer transfer of Gus Gilchrist, left Williams without many options. Aside from junior F Milbourne, who will be counted on heavily to score and play better defense, there is little in the way of experience or size. Who's going to rebound and block shots? Sophomores Dupree and Jerome Burney will certainly get their chance, as will much-improved sophomore Dino Gregory, but none has shown he is ready to take over for Gist and Osby, the league's top shot-blocking duo last season. Dave Neal, the team's only senior, works hard, but his lack of athleticism will come into play once the Terps hit the ACC.

OUTLOOK: : The prognostications have been pretty bleak for the Terps, with some publications picking Maryland at or near the bottom of the league. The drop from the top five or six is drastic, but for the Terps to be competitive with even Miami, Virginia Tech and Clemson, they will have to play a terrific pressing defense or get more production from Dupree and the other big men. The NCAA tournament seems like a long shot, and even another NIT bid is not guaranteed. If the Terps struggle against nonconference competition as they did last year, it could be a long season in College Park.

DON MARKUS



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