Commentary

Maryland's one shining moment is a fading memory

Originally Published: July 2, 2008
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

The moment is freeze-framed in YouTube glory. As the last notes of "One Shining Moment" fade, Juan Dixon hurls his 6-foot-3 frame at Lonny Baxter, tackling his teammate in a powerful embrace.

It is at once Maryland's shining moment and fading glory, the year everything came together for the Terrapins and everything stopped progressing. Maryland won that national championship in 2002 on Dixon's moxie, Byron Mouton's selflessness, Baxter's bulk and Gary Williams' ability to turn a bunch of less-heralded recruits into champions.

[+] EnlargeJuan Dixon
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesJuan Dixon's One Shining Moment in 2002 is a distant memory for a Terps program that has struggled since then.

From that high, there is no place to go but down. The lure of the NBA, coupled with the fickle whims of teenagers, makes college basketball dynasties harder to come by than $2 gas.

But Maryland's slide down the ladder toward irrelevancy appears to have hit its most critical step. The Terps have made one NCAA tournament appearance in four years and have become the sort of once-in-a-season highlight team (see: upset of North Carolina, 2008; win at Duke, 2007) that feeds at the bottom of the ACC.

Williams, once lauded for resurrecting Maryland from the depths of NCAA probation, now enters his 20th season dogged by questions about himself, his program and his status with the university administration.

"Is this a big year? Absolutely," said Kent Greenway, coach of the Richmond Squires AAU team, a power in the D.C.-Baltimore-Virginia hub. "People are questioning how good of a coach Gary is, how good of a job the team is doing recruiting and whether the AD wants [Williams] out. This is a very, very important year."

Yet, in a season with conceivably so much on the line, Maryland starts with only 10 scholarship players. Shane Walker transferred, would-be recruit Tyree Evans never got past the administrative smell test and heralded rookie-to-be Gus Gilchrist elected to transfer to South Florida, where he hopes an appeal will restore a year of eligibility.

That leaves the Terps with a frontcourt that averaged 4.4 points and 4.0 rebounds last season in a league that has a stacked North Carolina roster, a hungry Duke team and a blossoming Miami program.

Worse than what Maryland has on its roster -- what some contend is unmined talent that could be better than other people think -- is the lack of juice the state university has in a region where talent is ripe for the picking.

In the past two years, the Maryland area has produced three top-five NBA draft picks -- Texas' Kevin Durant went second and Georgetown's Jeff Green fifth in 2007, and Kansas State's Michael Beasley went No. 2 just this past Thursday. Mix in Carmelo Anthony in 2003, and you get an idea of just how deep the talent pool is around College Park.

"There's no reason they're not getting some of these guys," said Curtis Malone, co-founder of the powerful D.C. Assault AAU team. "It's a great campus, a great facility, great conference. Gary is a good coach. There's so much talent in the Baltimore-D.C. area, they should be getting more kids to stay home. I can't put my finger on it."

***
Gary Williams is understandably defensive. His program has been dragged through the blog cesspool, skewered, poked and dissected. The requisite firegarywilliams.com already is up and running.

And unlike most coaches, Williams admits he's bothered by the criticism.

"Whoever says it doesn't bother them is lying," he said. "It's human nature. You want people to say nice things about you."

But there isn't exactly generosity of spirit where the Terps and Williams are concerned these days. Fans see a revolving door spinning talented people out and not-so-talented players in; they see a resurgent Georgetown team rising from the ashes to make the Final Four while the Maryland team tries to simply make the NCAA tournament.

As Williams points out, the Hoyas have been hit by their own player turnover -- Jeremiah Rivers transferred to Indiana and Vernon Macklin to Florida -- but an exodus of players loses its sting when there's a fairly fresh Final Four banner hanging in the rafters.

The messy trails left by Maryland's two most public deserters make its situation even less palatable.

Tyree Evans, a high-scoring guard who scored the third-most points in one season in Virginia prep history, would have been a junior next season. The 23-year-old, who spent time at a prep school and two junior colleges, signed a letter of intent with Maryland in April, but athletic director Debbie Yow said that, at the time, she didn't know Evans had served jail time (he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of possession of marijuana with intent to distribute and spent two weeks in jail in 2007).

Sean Mosley
G Fiume/Getty ImagesBaltimore-native Sean Mosley is Maryland's only incoming recruit.

As a debate raged over whether Evans was worth the publicity risk, he asked to be released from his letter of intent, and Maryland agreed.

"The admission of any student with a criminal record is determined by two entities outside of the department of athletics -- the university admissions office and the office of student conduct," said Yow, who responded to ESPN.com's questions via e-mail.

Williams' decision to take a chance on Evans -- who was charged for a marijuana possession (2005) and indecent assault of a person over 14 (he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault and battery in 2006) in his background -- reeked of an act of desperation by a man who needed to get back to the NCAA tournament. The fizzling finish only fueled the flames of rumor that there is a power struggle between Williams and Yow.

Neither Williams nor Yow admits to any animosity toward the other, but in area hoops circles, there is a growing sense the relationship is a slow burn in a dry forest.

"This is from what I hear, not what I've seen, but people think they don't like each other," said Greenway, who is admittedly disappointed that Maryland didn't give Evans a chance. "People think Miss Yow is trying to submarine the program."

"Coach Williams and I have worked together for 14 years," Yow said in an e-mail response. "I appreciate all he has done to elevate the program. We meet routinely, as do ADs and their head coaches, and I find our meetings to be positive and productive."

Just as the Evans firestorm died down, the Gus Gilchrist fiasco came to a head. A heralded 6-9 center, Gilchrist transferred from Virginia Tech to Maryland after the 2007 shootings on the Blacksburg, Va., campus left him craving a college closer to home.

ACC rules, however, require players who transfer within the league to sit out a full calendar year. Gilchrist would have been eligible to play two and a half years at Maryland, beginning in December.

Maryland twice appealed to the ACC on Gilchrist's behalf but was denied both times. Gilchrist asked to be released from his scholarship and last month signed with South Florida. He still will have to appeal his transfer in order to play immediately, but he will have four years of eligibility whenever he resumes his career.

"Originally, he thought he was going to be one of those guys going to the NBA right away," Williams said. "But then he played against our guys, and he realized he needed the full amount of time to play, so he decided to transfer."

The kicker in all this is that the Terps were ready to give former Oklahoma guard Bobby Maze a scholarship. Maze, who spent a year in junior college, verbally committed to the Terps, but Maryland rescinded its offer (reason unknown) in April.

Maze signed with Tennessee and, in a freestyle rap currently burning up the Maryland message boards, opines, "This thing is not a game/Who am I to blame/Maryland never change."

Barring late summer additions, Sean Mosley -- whose academic status was tenuous but is now expected to qualify, according to the Baltimore Sun -- will be the lone member of Maryland's freshman class.

***
It's more than just the players who are leaving. That can be explained to an extent. It's also the players who aren't coming at all that raises eyebrows.

Gary Williams argues that it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep kids at home. Between the parents who justifiably want their kids away from either the mean streets or the hangers-on from their hometowns and the kids whose worlds have been opened by AAU tournaments, hometown ties are almost meaningless.

"Durant wasn't staying home; neither was Beasley," Williams said. "We didn't get them. Neither did 336 other schools."

But forget Beasley and Durant, two gems who literally had their pick of the country.

What about Ty Lawson (North Carolina) and Nolan Smith (Duke)? Chris Wright (Georgetown) and Donte Greene (Syracuse)? Dante Cunningham (Villanova) and Jeff Allen (Virginia Tech)? Or the 25 DC Assault alums who, according to its Web site, played college ball last season? None played for Maryland.

[+] EnlargeGreivis Vasquez
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeMaryland's upset of unbeaten, No. 1-ranked North Carolina in January was the Terps' highlight of the season.

"You're the state school; you're expected to get the local kid," Kent Greenway said. "I know that's more difficult now, but that's the expectation."

At its peak, Maryland had a coaching staff almost as seasoned as Joe Paterno's. Billy Hahn served as an assistant for 12 years, Jimmy Patsos for 13. Strong in their own minds and opinions, they knew how to handle Williams, whose hot temper and demanding personality are legendary.

Hahn left for a head coaching job at La Salle in 2001, Patsos for Loyola in 2005. Since then, Maryland's coaching door has spun almost as wildly as its players' entrance. Former WNBA head coach Michael Adams joined the staff in 2004 and two games into the 2007-08 season, abruptly resigned to spend more time with his family. One-time Charlotte 49ers assistant Rob Moxley came to College Park in 2004, only to return to Charlotte two years later for an associate head coaching position.

Former Terp Keith Booth is in his fifth season at College Park, Chuck Driesell his third.

"You get new assistants, it takes time to develop relationships with recruits and rebuild that," Williams said. "So I can see where that probably hurt us, but I like where we are now."

Unable to resist the zinger -- "We haven't gotten any eighth-graders yet, I'll admit" -- Williams said he feels good about the inroads his staff has made with players for 2009-10, and people in and around the state say Williams' staff is working.

The problem, observers say, is that the Maryland assistants are trying to close deals on their own. They point to coaches like John Calipari, who relied heavily on former assistant Derek Kellogg (now at Massachusetts) but who also ran up his own frequent-flier miles between Memphis and Philadelphia to secure the services of Tyreke Evans.

And they wonder whether Williams, 20 years into it, still has the stomach for the game.

"What Gary has done with that program … let's face it, they were very bad," said Greene's high school coach, Josh Pratt, who quickly added that he believes the feisty Williams is one to be reckoned with. "What he's done is phenomenal. People are very appreciative of that, but there are young coaches who are like Gary was 10 years ago. They're hungry, and they want to prove themselves."

***
Maryland went 19-15 in 2007-08. The Terps sold out all of their home games and finished tied for fifth in their conference. Senior James Gist, an unheralded player out of high school, just joined the San Antonio Spurs as a second-round pick.

Nothing to be ashamed of there.

But there are statistics, and then there are statistics, and in college basketball, one matters most: NCAA tournament appearances. Maryland has been three times since that national title but hasn't managed to get out of the first weekend since 2003.

In the IM world of teenagers, in which responses and gratification are instantaneous, that's a lifetime.

"Kids have short memories," Malone said. "That championship was six years ago. Most kids, they don't even remember it."

The shining moment is becoming a fading memory.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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