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Top of the Arc - January 18, 2009

Jan. 18, 12:30 p.m.: An action-packed Saturday of college basketball had concluded when ESPN’s wrap-up show “Midnight Madness” posed a question to its two analysts: Which coach is on the hotter seat -- Maryland’s Gary Williams or Oregon’s Ernie Kent?

Jay Williams, the former Duke guard, answered Williams and said Athletic Director Debbie Yow does not like Williams. Fellow analyst Doug Gottlieb chose Kent.

The situations are quite different. A young but talented Oregon team is 6-12 (0-6 in the Pac-10) and has not won since Dec. 29. Despite recent NCAA tournament success, Kent has faced off-court issues amid murmurs that he could someday be replaced with Gonzaga’s Mark Few, an Oregon graduate who is close to the school’s athletic director.

What you have at Maryland is a unique and layered coaching situation. Leave alone the fact that Williams has three more years and about $6 million left on his contract and that Williams and Yow have co-existed for years despite poor communication. Simply consider what many fans have asked me in recent weeks: Should Williams’s accomplishments afford him a lifetime pass at Maryland?

Fans understand Williams rebuilt his alma mater from ruin following the ill-fated Bob Wade era, that he reached two Final Fours, won a national title and compiled a Hall of Fame resume. And they know there has not been even a whiff of NCAA transgressions, and that he has not won fewer than 19 games since winning the national title.

But they also see that no national title team in the past 18 years has fallen as quickly as Maryland has. Syracuse, the 2003 champ, missed the NCAAs the past two seasons, but Coach Jim Boeheim has positioned his team as a national contender this season.

The most stunning aspect about Maryland’s loss to Morgan State was that it should no longer be considered a stunning upset. Take Greivis Vasquez out of the equation and Morgan state had more talent than the Terrapins. Maryland still has the potential to beat anyone on any court (see North Carolina last season), but the Terrapins also can lose to a talented mid- or low-major program on their home court.

This particularly team, considering its talent, has overachieved much of this season and is two late-game stumbles away from Williams entering the ACC coach of the year discussion behind frontrunner Dino Gaudio of Wake Forest.

Maryland’s issue has been recruiting, not coaching. Williams has been reluctant to get knee-deep into the muddy AAU world (who can blame him?). High turnover on his staff has also been a factor, although there is optimism about recruits who arrive this fall.

Maryland still can return to the NCAA tournament, but its margin for error is small. The Terrapins likely need at least a 9-7 ACC record. Six of the final 13 conference games are against teams – Clemson, Wake Forest, Duke and North Carolina – that were ranked in the top 10 this week. At least six ACC teams have stronger tournament profiles than the Terrapins. And there is only one other team ranked in the RPI’s top 100 (Arizona) yet to win a game on an opponent’s home court.

Getting this team to the NCAAs would rank as one of Williams’s finest moments. Barring that, Maryland fans can expect to hear more pointed questions about the direction of the program and its coach’s future in the coming months.

By Eric Prisbell  |  January 18, 2009; 12:19 PM ET
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