ATLANTA — ATLANTA -The Maryland men's basketball team filed out of the Georgia Dome dejected. Reaching the semifinals of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament was no consolation.
"I don't feel good at all. I'm a winner," junior guard Greivis Vasquez said after the Terps' 67-61 loss to Duke yesterday. "I wanted to win the whole tournament."
The disappointment is understandable, but the team returned to College Park last night with a couple of things Maryland hasn't had lately on Selection Sunday: hope and a reasonable expectation that it will be included in the 65-team NCAA tournament field. That the Terps can even gather and watch as the brackets are announced is a pretty big testament to what kind of group they turned out to be.
But it's a much bigger testament to what kind of coach Gary Williams is.
More than any player on the roster, Williams is the reason Maryland is in the position it's in today, prepared to go from bubble to bracket. This tumultuous season - the calls for his job, a fan base divided, infighting with administrators - was among the most difficult Williams has faced. He responded with a coaching effort that's among the best he has produced.
Granted, it's because of Williams' shortcomings as a recruiter that he had an unimpressive roster this season, but it's an absolute credit to his abilities as a strategist and a motivator that the Terps took what could have been a lost season and found themselves yesterday just a couple of possessions away from the ACC tournament championship game.
The future of the Maryland men's program still isn't the most secure, but, for now, Williams' place at the helm should be.
His relationship with this team has been interesting. Since scrutiny and criticism began closing in on Williams one month ago, he has started just about every post-game news conference praising his team's effort. In wins and in losses, he has always been proud of its effort. In turn, players were put in the unique position of defending their coach.
When they gather today to learn their postseason fate, nervousness and uncertainty will trump entitlement. But there's also a sense of pride in what they've accomplished this season, particularly in light of the heat their coach took. Players, in fact, say it would mean the world if they're the group that returns Williams to the tournament.
"Coach Williams worked so hard this year for us," forward Dave Neal said. "He knew that we could be a good team, and he did everything in his will to make this team as good as it could be."
As the Terps rebounded and continued to fight the odds this season, even as Williams grew increasingly defensive and occasionally caustic, you always had the sense that he coveted an NCAA tournament bid not just for the sake of his own reputation, job security or legacy.
Rather, he wanted it for his players. He has dug deeper for a group that he clearly appreciated. Even as the world was caving in and when Williams seemed to be the one brandishing a shovel, these players tried their toughest to pull him through. And he gave his very best to put them in that position.
"I think he really brought the best out of every one of his players," said Neal, the lone senior and the one Williams credits for keeping the players together. "Everyone gave him everything. We were playing hard for him. I think if we make the tournament, it just shows how great of a coach Williams is."
More than one seasoned observer at the Georgia Dome this past week expressed amazement that this Williams team got even this far. On paper, the Terps weren't good enough to go 7-9 in the conference, and they certainly weren't good enough to beat North Carolina State and Wake Forest in the conference tournament. Everyone knows how Maryland did it - its head coach - but how does Williams do it?
Clearly, this is the part of coaching that Williams loves, and, indisputably, it's the part of coaching that he's best at. The job of the head coach has evolved, and if the Terps are to ever return to an elite level, better recruiting is essential.
But Williams can coach the game as well as anyone, which is why for three decades he has consistently taken underachievers and somehow found a way. Heart wins in romantic comedies and for Williams-coached teams. Shudder to think how good the Terps could be if Williams did himself a favor and landed better talent.
There was a moment late in yesterday's game. There was less than a minute on the clock, and Duke was inbounding the ball on the baseline near Maryland's bench. Williams stood just a few feet away from where the play would begin, his eyes and attention focused on Landon Milbourne, who was guarding the inbound passer.
"Move! Move! Move, Landon! Move!" Williams screamed, his face turning redder than his necktie.
The Terps' chances of winning were slipping away, but Williams was still teaching. He wasn't ready to stop. He knew he had more coaching to do. He has always known, in fact.
And now everyone else knows that, too.