Postseason Evaluations: Gary Williams
This week, Terrapins Insider has taken a look at each of the Maryland players and how they performed this season. With those evaluations complete, we'll now take a look at the man responsible for leading this squad through an up-and-down campaign that eventually concluded with a return trip to the NCAA tournament.
An image of Maryland Coach Gary Williams popped up on the television screen inside the Terrapins' locker room at Sprint Center the day before their NCAA tournament journey was to commence. Maryland's players, assistant coaches and staff members immediately stopped whatever it was they were doing to gather around the monitor, turn up the volume and listen to what their leader had to say.
Williams was seated at a podium in front of an assembled gathering of reporters, taking his turn to face questions about the season his team had experienced. There were questions about California, Maryland's upcoming first round opponent. There were questions about schemes and approaches and game plans. And there were questions about the criticism Williams had endured en route to his 13th NCAA tournament appearance in 20 seasons at the helm of his alma mater.
In the locker room, the team inched closer to the screen, eyes locked on the man to whom they had been steadfastly loyal. One of the most popular questions asked of the players in the preceding weeks had been if they felt as though they were playing for their coach. On the surface, it seemed like a silly question. Of course they were playing for Williams. He was the one in charge. Don't all players on all teams play for the guy who brought them in?
But there was added emphasis in part of the question that made it stand out. Do you feel like you're playing for your coach? And to a man, the players answered in the affirmative.
Questions loomed around this particular squad from Day One. Three guards? Four, if you count Landon Milbourne? All on the floor at the same time? What is this, Villanova? Duke? And that front court? How will that collection of "post players" survive? Better yet, how will the team survive with that collection of post players? Will Braxton Dupree pan out? Will Milbourne wear down at the power forward position? Will Greivis Vasquez try to win games by himself as he had to so many times the previous season? And on and on and on.
The Terrapins were forced into overtime in the third game of the season by Vermont, a good team in its own right, but not one that should be hanging with the likes of Maryland. Vasquez sent the game into overtime on a three-pointer with six seconds left, and Maryland escaped with a win.
Then the Terrapins went to Orlando over Thanksgiving and shocked Michigan State, then ranked No. 5 in the country. This is what Williams-led teams do -- win games no one expected them to win. But then they dropped consecutive decisions by significant margins to Gonzaga and Georgetown. The three-game stretch was considered a success, if for no other reason than the Terrapins did not go O-3.
Maryland knocked off Michigan at home a few days later, and confidence around the team abounded. The Terrapins had earned two quality wins in their first seven games. After making it through December without any of the hiccups that plagued the team the year before, Maryland appeared in great shape entering ACC play.
But a home loss to Morgan State on Jan. 7 decimated most of the optimism that had surrounded the team. Few people figured at that point that both of those teams would end up in the NCAA tournament.
The Terrapins started conference play 2-4, a string that included back-to-back road losses in the state of Florida. Both of those contests were close, the kind of games many people felt Maryland had to win. In retrospect, the losses at Miami and Florida State provided a great deal of foreshadowing for how the next few months would progress.
First, there was the fact that -- in just the second and third games of ACC play -- it was commonly thought that the Terrapins had to win them both. Or at least that, given the closeness of the losses, that those two losses would come back to haunt Maryland at season's end.
Secondly, there were Williams's reactions to both defeats. After his team blew a double-digit lead at Miami, Williams appeared extremely distraught. His postgame press conference lasted less than four minutes, and he snapped at a team spokesman at its conclusion. He appeared completely drained. And it was only the middle of January.
Williams's demeanor following an overtime loss at Florida State three days later was completely different. He was disappointed, sure. But he seemed much more upbeat about his team's prospects. Perhaps he was steeled by the thought that his team "should have" won those two games in Florida. Maybe it was his team's effort in that Florida State game that endeared this collection of players to him. They had been outdone by a Seminoles squad that was much bigger up front and more talented on the perimeter. And yet Maryland remained competitive until the very end.
In the following weeks, Williams became involved in a public spat with Maryland athletic department officials over the recruitment of players who never ended up at the university. His recruiting efforts and patterns were scrutinized extensively in a three-part Washington Post series. His relationship with Maryland Athletic Director Debbie Yow was called into question, as was his job status.
But not once was Williams's coaching acumen challenged. And over the final two months of the season, Williams proved himself once again to be a master motivator and tactician. For starters, he got the most out of an undersize squad that lacked the natural talent present on many other ACC rosters.
He also made a key lineup change that may have altered the course of his team's season. He inserted Sean Mosley into the starting unit, providing it with a more physical defensive presence, and put Eric Hayes into a reserve role. With Hayes coming off the bench, Maryland suddenly possessed some offensive burst in its second wave. Both players eventually thrived in their new positions. The switch worked out nicely for all parties involved.
And perhaps most notably, he showed a willingness and ability to adapt, made evident by his frequent implementation of a 3-2 zone defense. Throughout his career, Williams had heavily relied upon high-pressure man-to-man defense, but with the makeup of this season's squad, the zone look fit best. So that's what he went with.
There were games when Maryland simply was outclassed -- in a 41-point loss at Duke, a 17-point loss at North Carolina and a 29-point loss at Clemson -- but there also were games when the Terrapins performed well beyond their means. They beat North Carolina at home. They beat Wake Forest in the ACC tournament quarterfinals. They challenged Duke and Wake Forest at Comcast Center, as well.
Maryland was not a good team this season because of overwhelming talent or because it had just the right mix of players. The Terrapins became a good team this season because they bought into the notion that they could be. Williams was the one who sold that notion to them. He remained focused on whichever game was next on the schedule, compartmentalizing past losses and any outside noise that threatened to distract him from the task at hand. Williams's tunnel vision was extreme beyond measurement. And it had to be.
Did he acknowledge the criticism heaped on him and his program in the middle of the season? Certainly. It would have been impossible not to. Did that criticism gnaw at him, fuel him, push his desire to win with this team further and further? He would never give the criticism such credit, but it's likely that it did.
Even on Selection Sunday, once Maryland had been awarded a No. 10 seed in the West Region and was slotted to play a very winnable game against California, Williams would not allow talk of personal vindication. This season was not about redemption, Williams insisted. But, really, it was.
The players knew the challenge facing their coach. They knew it would take all he had to squeeze an NCAA tournament bid out of their compilation of abilities. They wanted to prove that Williams could win with them.
By the end of the season, Williams had molded this unit into a reflection of his own image -- back perpetually against the wall, certain that no one believed in it, deliriously determined to prove the world wrong.
Maryland's season ended on a sour note. The Terrapins were defeated soundly by a hyper-athletic and imposing Memphis squad. By that point, Williams had maxed out his players. There was nothing more he could do. He already had done more than enough.
What did you think of the coaching job Williams did this season? How would you evaluate his performance?
March 27, 2009; 1:00 PM ET
Categories: Men's basketball
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