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As 2001, 2002 Maryland teams return, Gary Williams sees similarities in this year's Terps

Gary Williams and Juan Dixon see parallels between this year's Terps and the 2001, 2002 Final Four teams.

A year before the Maryland men's basketball team reached the Final Four for the first time in school history, two years before the Terps won their only national championship, the foundation was taking shape in the form of three young players whose jerseys now hang from the rafters of the Xfinity Center.

Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter were sophomores who had begun to assert their dominance in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Steve Blake was the first freshman point guard to start his first game in the decade since coach Gary Williams returned to his alma mater. They formed the nucleus of Maryland's most celebrated and cherished team.

As the 2000-01 and 2001-02 teams return Saturday to reminisce and be honored before Maryland's home game against Iowa, another group of young Terps have started to lay their own roots and made their own history earlier this season. And those young Terps hope to make a bigger mark down the road.

"The game's different today. Guys stuck around back then," Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said Friday. "I'm hoping we can build that. You look at teams that were in the Final Four last year; they built it up. Oklahoma had three or four guys that started 130 games together. We had played like 30 together last year."

Anthony Cowan said he has had conversations with fellow freshman starters Kevin Huerter and Justin Jackson about duplicating the success of the 2001 and 2002 teams. Already, they are part of a team that got off to the best start in school history (20-2).

"Not just with us, but with the whole team, we definitely have a championship in our vision," Cowan said Friday. "We have struggled the last couple of games, but I feel we still have a chance to make it far in the [NCAA] tournament, to play good in the Big Ten tournament. … We just have to stay focused."

Just as these Terps have had their recent bumps, including their current two-game losing streak and a stretch of four defeats in six games, so did the 1999-2000 team. That squad began ACC play with three straight losses and ended the season with a 35-point defeat to UCLA in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

It equaled the largest margin of defeat for the Terps in the NCAA tournament and, along with a 14-point defeat to St. John's in the Sweet 16 the previous year, helped serve as motivation for what was to come. It made the players as hungry as their coach.

"We were consistently good enough to be in the Sweet 16. We were that good, but we never won that next game. That's the best way you can put it," Williams said earlier this week. "You have to be good enough to win that next game. We didn't do it. It was a matter of getting the right blend of players."

Williams did.

After the departure of All-American Steve Francis, who was the second overall pick in the 1999 NBA draft, as well as future NBA players Laron Profit and Obinna Ekezie, Williams brought in Blake, Drew Nicholas and Tahj Holden. They joined Dixon, Baxter and Terence Morris, one of two seniors in the rotation on the first Final Four team.

"We had some good teams before we got to the Final Four," Williams said. "I always thought the Steve Francis team [in 1998-99] was good enough to compete for a national championship. … I thought Joe Smith's sophomore year [in 1994-95] —I had pneumonia for three weeks and that didn't help the situation. I thought if things go right, we had a chance."

While Williams took his share of criticism after the blowout loss to the Bruins ended a 25-10 season, he knew that as the 2000-01 team started practicing that things were about to change. That confidence grew despite a three-game losing streak in February that ended with the team being booed off the court at Cole Field House after a close loss to Florida State.

"We had good players at every position," Williams recalled. "They weren't All-Americans, but by the time they played together, you could put each guy individually against an All-American and they could definitely compete. We obviously had an All-American in Juan Dixon playing for us. That's how we tried to do it."

When he was being recruited out of Calvert Hall, Dixon had seen close-up how Williams had lifted the program from the depths following the cocaine-overdose death of All-American Len Bias to making the Sweet 16 in each of Joe Smith's two seasons.

"Things were beginning to turn into the program Coach Williams probably envisioned," said Dixon, who would become the all-time leading scorer in program history as well as the Most Outstanding Player at the 2002 Final Four.

As special assistant to current coach Mark Turgeon for three seasons until leaving this summer, Dixon has seen a similar picture begin to develop. Just as happened his first two years as a player, the Terps fell short a year ago with a roster that seemed loaded with potential NBA talent.

"We didn't get it done my freshman year with Steve Francis, Profit and Ekezie, and we didn't get it done my sophomore year, and we didn't get it done last year with Rob [Carter] and Melo [Trimble] and Diamond [Stone] and Jake [Layman] and [Rasheed] Sulaimon," Dixon said.

"Hopefully this Maryland team is like us. After we didn't perform well my freshman year, we began to turn the corner and use that experience. I do see some similarities in how well they're playing this year. … The freshmen have stepped up and are playing well, Melo's playing at a high level."

In watching this year's team as a fan, a Hall of Fame coach as well as a television analyst for Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic, Williams sees some parallels between what has transpired over the past few months and what happened nearly two decades ago.

The Terps have their unequivocal leader and star in junior point guard Trimble, as they had with Dixon, and before that for one season with Francis. Even more important to the future, perhaps, are freshmen Jackson, Huerter and Cowan.

"I don't think there's any doubt, you have three freshmen that have played at the level of Cowan, Huerter and Jackson, for the future you have to say it looks good," Williams said. "When you have three guys like — you're assuming everything goes well, they don't get hurt. They don't change their attitude; they seem to have a great attitude. Given that, if things go the way they should go, that's a great nucleus for the future."

Regardless of what happens in March, Williams said the most important thing is to keep growing. Given the team Turgeon expects to have next season — particularly if Trimble returns for his senior season — the Terps should be able to make the next step as the program continues to bring in talent and this year's freshmen continue to improve.

"The key is, whatever they do this year is great. You just don't want to end the year and go, 'Boy, we were good, so we're good now,'" Williams said. "Because you know the Big Ten is going to be stronger next year, obviously. You have to accept that. … We knew we had worked hard enough to be good that next year."

Just as Williams built on the foundation by adding two-and-done talent Chris Wilcox as well as role players such as Holden, Nicholas and Ryan "Sleepy" Randle, Turgeon is trying to do the same next season. In 2017-18, the Terps add Bruno Fernando, a 6-foot-10 power forward from Angola currently playing at the IMG Academy in Florida, as well as 6-3 guard Darryl Morsell of Baltimore (Mount Saint Joseph).

"I feel really great about our program," Turgeon said Friday. "I'm so proud of this team, what they've done. I'm looking forward to the future with these young guys and the guys that are coming back. To compare ourselves to a national championship team, we can't do that."

Said Dixon, "Hopefully they can build into what the ultimate goal is — winning a Big Ten and a national championship. There's no doubt in my mind that Coach Turgeon's vision is to have that type of success."

don.markus@baltsun.com

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