Other champions probably greater, but few teams have ever been tougher

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The pundits and basketball junkies are already discussing the University of Maryland's place among college basketball's elite. But for those who engage in such dialogue, they might miss the story line of Maryland's 2002 national championship run.

It wasn't about greatness, it was about grit.

It was about the team concept, a blue-collar work ethic and dreams. Maryland was a feel-good story, especially for those of us who still believe accomplishments can be achieved through hard work.

There were no short cuts for Terps guard Juan Dixon, whose parents died of AIDS before he finished high school, or center Lonny Baxter, who, like Dixon, was not recruited heavily out of high school. Maryland's Gary Williams, in 24 years of coaching, had never been fortunate enough to walk into jobs at UCLA, Indiana or Kentucky, where championship banners hang from the rafters and every blue-chipper has your school in his top five.

It's been American University, Boston College, Ohio State and Maryland, whose program was in shambles when he came to College Park 13 years ago. Maryland displayed Williams' personality, from his confidence and intensity down to the chip he carries on his shoulder, which, for this team, was left over from losing to Duke in the 2001 Final Four.

"They had the courage after last year's game in the Final Four to set a goal that a lot of people kind of laughed at," said Williams. "They weren't afraid to tell people what their goal was, to win the national title."

Maryland never lost its nerve, despite being a preseason favorite. They won because the starters were unselfish, complemented each other and the bench players knew their roles.

That's what made this team special. The closest Maryland had to a star was Dixon, who has been projected as a late-first-round NBA draft pick.

In the future, we'll find out just how talented this team was using the NBA as the last barometer. But will we really care? Will we really care whether Maryland was better than the Duke, Michigan State or Kentucky teams that won national championships?

We will remember, though, guard Drew Nicholas coming off the bench hitting big three-pointers and reserve forward Tahj Holden giving quality minutes in the paint in relief of Baxter, especially against Kansas in the semifinals.

We'll remember the rim-rattling dunks of Chris Wilcox, the bullying moves in the low post of Baxter and the neat, little, no-look passes of point guard Steve Blake. We'll recall small forward Byron Mouton diving on the floor, hurling his body into the crowd for loose balls and pumping his fist after a tough basket underneath. And, most of all, we'll remember that look of obsession and passion in the eyes of Dixon while carrying Maryland on his back through six games in the NCAA tournament.

This was not a pretty team to watch. The Terps had a habit of playing down to their competition's level, which made fans' hearts flutter late in games. But when the Terps were on, there was no team in the country that was going to beat them. They had four players who could dominate inside and two who shot well on the perimeter.

And when things weren't clicking, someone, as Mouton would say, always came up big.

Maybe that was prompted by senior leadership or because the Terps had three genuine tough guys on the roster in Blake, Dixon and Baxter. But the chemistry worked.

"It's just great to see this group come together and do what they did, because none of them were heavily recruited," said Williams.

Give Williams credit. For years, he had been criticized for not signing blue-chip prospects. But in the Final Four, his was the team with three seniors in the starting lineup.

Williams isn't a great coach, but a good one. Most of his judgments are sound. He may not dazzle you with strategy, but he'll win with motivation, intensity and desire. In Maryland's Final Four run, Williams had the Terps prepared to play against four of college basketball's most successful programs in Kentucky, Connecticut, Kansas and Indiana and three of the game's top coaches in Tubby Smith, Jim Calhoun and Roy Williams.

Finally, it was Gary Williams' turn to climb the ladder and cut down the nets.

"We feel we accomplished a lot this year," said Baxter. "We definitely wanted to get Coach a ring. He comes into Maryland, turned this program around tremendously. This was his year. It's time. He got what he deserved."

So did Maryland

It's a program that has had some great players, such as Len Bias, Buck Williams, Albert King, Len Elmore and John Lucas, but they never won a national championship, never lived up to that claim of former Terps coach Lefty Driesell to turn Maryland into the "UCLA of the East."

Hanging from the rafters in Cole Field House are the banners honoring some of Maryland's greatest players. But one thing was always missing, a championship banner. University officials will put this one in Cole for a while before moving it to the Comcast Center, which opens next season.

There, fans and alumni will be able to remember the 2002 championship team, one that will be remembered as much for its grit as its greatness.