- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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Yes, Maryland has missed the NCAA Tournament the past two seasons, but let's put the current state of the Terrapins into some perspective.
Gary Williams' challenge this season pales in comparison to where he was in 1989, taking over at his alma mater following the aftermath of Len Bias' tragic death and subsequent NCAA-violation-plagued three-year reign of Bob Wade.
Two straight NIT appearances? Suddenly, the recovery is not so daunting.
"This decade we've gone to two Final Fours, won a national championship, won the ACC tournament title and yet some people will dwell on the two NITs," Williams said. "Look where we've been.
"My biggest challenge was coming here when no one thought we could be successful in basketball again because of Len Bias dying and Bob Wade; nothing compares to that, nothing compares to trying to recruit with no television [which was a part of the initial sanctions] and two less scholarships and being banned for two years [from the NCAA Tournament]. Try to recruit like that and we ended up winning a national championship [in 2002]."
Williams also notes that during the last two seasons, untimely departures had an impact.
"We went to 11 straight NCAA Tournaments before the last two years, but you can't have injuries and you can't have guys get into academic trouble," Williams said, referencing now-senior D.J. Strawberry's tearing his ACL two years ago and leading scorer Chris McCray's playing in only 16 games last season before ending up academically ineligible.
Don't think for a second, though, that Williams, a fierce competitor, is taking Maryland's current status lightly. In fact, Williams is doing everything short of guaranteeing the Terps' NCAA drought will end next season.
"This is going to be a very good team," Williams said. "I know we have to prove it, but we've got four starters back."
Williams points to Strawberry's injury as one of the main reasons the Terps were left out of the NCAA field two seasons ago. The inconsistency of point guard John Gilchrist in terms of both play and leadership didn't help, either.
Even with McCray's academic issues, though, Williams remains bitter about last season's end result.
The Terps finished 19-10 overall (8-8 in the ACC). They had an RPI of 60 and a SOS of 17 but were only 1-6 against the RPI top 25. Still, Williams can't understand how Air Force got into the field ahead of Maryland, considering the Falcons were rated at No. 55 in the RPI, had an SOS of 162 and one of their best wins was against Georgia Tech, a team that Maryland beat three times in the ACC.
"I thought we did well to recover after McCray," Williams said. "We won the last game of the regular season at Virginia [when the Cavaliers were closing University Hall]. The NCAA Tournament field was interesting, to say the least. We're the only team in the history of the ACC to finish .500 in the league, win a conference tournament game and not go."
The Terps' final impression, an 80-66 loss to Boston College in the ACC quarterfinals, didn't help.
"It hurt us and we didn't play well and BC was a good team, but we split with BC and no one remembers we beat them [at home] in December," Williams said. "Air Force didn't beat a top-50 team [going 0-2]. I'd like to see how many teams can go .500 in the ACC."
Williams admits the Terps need to get tougher defensively, saying recent Terp teams weren't up to his standards defensively. But an upperclass lineup of Strawberry -- considered one of the top perimeter defenders in the ACC -- along with senior Mike Jones, junior forward James Gist and senior Ekene Ibekwe, back from testing the NBA draft waters, gives the Terps one of the most experienced starting fives in the ACC.
Williams said Ibekwe should be humbled by his predraft experience, or lack thereof, saying, "Every guy who starts in the ACC thinks they're good enough to be in the pros and listen to what they want to hear."
The missing piece last season, though, was the lack of a reliable point. Williams says he finally has one in newcomer Eric Hayes of Dumfries, Va., (Potomac High), along with another ballhandler in incoming freshman Greivis Vasquez out of Montrose Christian School in Rockville, Md.
"We didn't have one [in 2005-06]," Williams said. "Hayes has been one. Vasquez is a legit player, too."
Williams also has worked through numerous staff changes, as Jimmy Patsos (Loyola of Maryland) and Dave Dickerson (Tulane) left to become head coaches and then, this past offseason, Rob Moxley went back to Charlotte, where he is going to be the associate head coach.
Williams replaced Moxley with a name familiar to the program: Chuck Driesell, son of former Terp coach Lefty Driesell.
The Terps also already have four commitments for the class of 2007, including three from Maryland. The highest rated of the bunch is 6-foot-8 forward/center Braxton Dupree of Baltimore, showing that the Terps can still get the high-level local talent at a time when basketball in the Beltway (Georgetown, George Washington and George Mason) is as hot as ever.
Despite all that, Maryland still isn't receiving any offseason buzz in the ACC. The talk is of North Carolina as the clear favorite, Duke still being Duke, Boston College staying in the top three and Georgia Tech getting back to being the Yellow Jackets of two years ago with its star-studded freshman class. Still, the Terps should be in the race behind another crop of unheralded upperclassmen who have weathered Williams to learn his defensive strategy while also buying into his tough, aggressive style.
Comparing Maryland to Florida of last season might be a reach, as the Terps don't have studs like Joakim Noah and Al Horford, but the Terps could pull a Florida in the Coaches versus Cancer Classic to start the season. Maryland is the most experienced of the four site hosts -- Michigan State, St. John's and Texas -- favored to reach New York City in mid-November. Florida won that event a year ago as a jump-start to its national title season.
"People were critical of Florida [for lack of postseason success since going to the title game in 2000] prior to this past year," Williams said. "We won a national championship. Teams don't do that every year. Look, Jim Calhoun told me that even though [UConn] went 30-4, there were fans that said they didn't have a good year. People write things on the Internet and they'll believe what they want. That's what we as coaches deal with. We'll have detractors no matter what."
There could be more if Maryland misses its third straight NCAA Tournament, but Williams isn't even thinking about that. He's as confident as ever that the Terps will be back in March. The work starts now.
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.