When Maryland men’s basketball fans talk about the good old days, they are typically referring to the 22-year run of Hall of Famer Gary Williams that was highlighted by two straight Final Fours and the 2002 national championship.
Those whose memories reach back even further bring up the 17-year career of Lefty Driesell, who is often credited with putting Maryland on the college basketball map in the early 1970s by recruiting such talented players as Tom McMillen, Len Elmore and John Lucas.
The 1957-58 team is barely recalled, but in becoming the first Atlantic Coast Conference team outside the state of North Carolina to win the then five-year-old postseason tournament, it helped make possible what Williams, Driesell and their players would go on to accomplish.
“To show that Maryland could win the ACC tournament was very important for the history of Maryland basketball,” Williams said Saturday. “It gave all the players that came along after them confidence. It wasn’t going to be easy, but they played well; they could win a championship.”
Only two other Terps teams were successful in doing that, both in Greensboro, N.C.: the 1984 team coached by Driesell and led by a sophomore star named Len Bias, and the 2004 team coached by Williams and led by another sophomore star, point guard John Gilchrist.
Five of the surviving members of the 1957-58 team, which mixed a talented trio of sophomores with a pair of a seniors who had just returned from serving in the military, will be honored Sunday, when the current Terps play Iowa at Xfinity Center.
Before the team winning that first ACC title 60 years ago, Maryland was considered a football school, having launched the coaching career of the legendary Bear Bryant in 1945 and then winning a national championship in 1953 under Bryant’s successor, Jim Tatum.
“I think they brought in Bud Millikan with the idea that he’d just be a good, solid coach and wouldn’t make any waves,” said Williams, who came to Maryland to play for Millikan in 1964, served as a graduate assistant with the freshman team in 1968-69 and returned as head coach in 1989.
Millikan, a disciple of the legendary Henry Iba at Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State), was hired at age 30 in 1950. He brought a methodical, defensive style to College Park, where the Terps had suffered losing records in eight of the previous 10 seasons.
His first few teams, several led by former Towson Catholic star Gene Shue, were solid but had never made it to the finals of the conference tournament of either the ACC or its predecessor, the Southern Conference, played at North Carolina State’s Reynolds Coliseum.
Jerry Bechtle, who as a sophomore came off the bench during the 1957-58 season, credits Tom Young and John Nacincik, who had spent time in the service, with bringing a “maturity level” to a team that showed its potential early in the season by beating Kentucky at Cole Field House.
“Millikan would yell and shout, and [Young and Nacincik] would laugh at us,” Bechtle recalled Friday. “That was the makeup of our team. We realized as the year went on that we had a good thing going. And Bud was such a great coach. He just blended us together.”
While recruiting wasn’t nearly the hyped, analyzed business it has become today, Millikan’s decision to bring in bigger players such as sophomores Al Bunge, who was nearly 6 feet 9, and Charles McNeil, who was 6-6, helped change the way Maryland had played.
Young, who had played two years with the Terps before getting drafted into the Army after the 1953-54 season, said Maryland’s ability to rebound and play defense allowed Millikan to take the reins off what had been a walk-it-up offense.
“The biggest thing is that he let us run a little bit,” said Young, who would later join Millikan’s staff before starting his own coaching career, which included taking Rutgers to the Final Four in 1976. “We were getting some easier baskets than we got on the other Maryland teams I played for, which really helped.”
After surviving Duke in overtime in the semifinals, 17th-ranked Maryland beat No. 13 North Carolina, the defending national champions, 86-74, in the final. Senior guard Nick Davis was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player, averaging close to 20 points.
“It was a big deal. ‘Whoa, Tobacco Road, maybe it’s not what it used to be,’ ” said Bunge, who as a senior two years later would go on to break the school’s single-game scoring record with 43 points against Yale, a record he held until Ernie Graham scored 44 against North Carolina State in 1978.
While Young doesn’t recall many of the particulars of the ACC final win over the Tar Heels, he has a clear memory of the celebration.
“The night we won, we did some celebrating, that’s for sure,” Young said. “We stayed overnight and we had a great time. The drinking age was 18, so you didn’t have to worry about it. … Maryland winning the ACC was not only important for Maryland, but for college basketball.”
Playing in the NCAA tournament for the first time, the Terps defeated Boston College at Madison Square Garden before moving on to the East Regional semifinals, where they lost a close game to Temple in Charlotte, N.C.
“It was really a physical game, and Temple played a lot more physical than the ACC did,” Young said. “When we got into that game, they were used to banging around and nothing getting called. Physically it didn’t help us in that game at all.”
Bunge, whose career was often interrupted and his entire life impacted by flareups of ulcerative colitis that was discovered during his freshman year, wasn’t in peak form in the NCAA tournament.
“They had a guy named [Tink] Van Patton that just beat the heck out of me,” said Bunge, who won’t make the trip from his home in Okahoma to Sunday’s celebration after recently spending time in the hospital. “If I had been healthy, we would’ve won.”
Even before he graduated, Young started a golf outing with his teammates and an assortment of other former Maryland athletes and his friends from home in Pennsylvania. The group held its 62nd straight outing in August at Penn National Golf Club.
“We’re down from 44 guys to 16,” Young said. “Gary’s the only guy to have a hole-in-one, ever.”
This marks the second time the 1958 team has been recognized, coming a decade after it was honored on the 50th anniversary. Millikan died at age 89 in 2010. Several of his players from that team have died as well.
Maryland coach Mark Turgeon, for his part, has tried to keep in touch with Maryland’s past.
“The ’58 team, I’ve gotten to know some of the guys and it’s a very proud group,” Turgeon said Saturday. “It’s great to get them back and they’re the group that turned us into a basketball school. It’s something to be proud of.”