COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Gary Williams may have his best Maryland team, and this season could be the Terrapins' best shot at a Final Four since, well, since forever.
Maryland is coming off of a 25-win season, has all five starters back, and appears to possess all the components of a title team. But the appearance of a championship team is nothing new at Maryland.
Since Gary Williams arrived at Maryland in 1989, the basketball program has flourished. Never has the program been stronger for a longer period of time.
By any measure, Maryland has been very successful under Williams. The Terps have earned a school-record seven straight trips to the NCAA Tournament, only five schools in the nation boast a longer streak. In his 11 seasons at Maryland, Williams has won an average of 19.7 games a season (217-128), and his Terps have 53 victories over the past two years -- seventh-best in the nation.
Simply put, the Maryland basketball program is a consistent winner.
But, still, there are skeptics that suggest that Maryland is not a consistent title contender. Maryland has not won an ACC title since 1984, and has not reached a regional final. The Terps suffered unsettling losses in the last two Tournaments -- first to St. John's in 1999, then last year's 35-point debacle to UCLA. Then, there is the persistent criticism of Maryland's recruiting.
"There's more criticism of everything here," Gary Williams said of the Washington D.C. area in the Internet age. "Everyone has an opinion, especially in this town, about the government, the Redskins, and about us."
Although somewhat used to it, Williams does seem to tire of the negative talk.
"We've had a number one (Joe Smith) and number two (Steve Francis) overall pick in the draft in the last five years, yet people say we don't recruit well. Something doesn't add up there," Williams said. "Either we develop players really well, or we recruit very well."
Williams knows some criticism comes with the territory on the elite level he's brought the Terp to in his tenure. He also knows that kind of talk will not ultimately affect the outcome of games. He is simply concentrated on preparing his team for the challenge of being an early favorite to reach the Final Four.
"This time of year is critical," Williams said of his early-season practices. "Just because we have everybody back doesn't mean we'll be a good team. It doesn't just happen."
While there have been critics, there is great optimism in College Park for this Terp team.
"The Final Four is realistic for this team," said bruising junior center Lonny Baxter. "We believe we can."
Maryland has been very good before, but this team seems to have a different feel. Williams wants his team to have lofty goals, and not measure themselves by just their number of wins.
"Our goals are high, but its not just to win, but to improve as we're winning," Williams said. "If we continue to get better, we can be really good."
"Last year's team had no killer instinct, we didn't put teams away," said Juan Dixon, who led the Terps in scoring last year at 18 points per game. "We have to play 40 minutes, not talk any stuff, and go out and close teams out."
Williams knows he has a trio of players he can rely upon this season to do the type of things needed for a team to reach the goals set by the Terrapins. He can count on Dixon to lead the Terps on both ends of the court, and the duo of Terence Morris and Baxter to dominate down low.
Dixon, a 6-foot-3 junior, was the ACC's second-leading scorer and led the league in steals last year. Morris' all-around skills make the 6-9 junior one of the nation's most talented players. And the emergence of Baxter last season gave Williams a 1-2 punch few teams could match.
Baxter simply had a breakout season last year, throwing around his 6-8, 250-pound frame inside to match Morris' production, albeit in a different way. Baxter averaged 15.6 points and 8.8 rebounds, shooting 53 percent from the field -- second in the ACC. He did not attempt a 3-point shot all season, displaying the discipline of a big man who knew his role.
Still, with all of the weapons at Williams' disposal, Morris remains his most gifted and maligned performer.
Enormously talented, Morris has been a lightning rod for comment. Even though his numbers were consistent last season -- Morris averaged 15.8 points and 8.6 rebounds as a junior -- he has not shown the temperament to dominate.
"Terence is just more laid back, more patient," Dixon said of Maryland's 6-9 star. "He needs to show everyone that he
can take over. If he does, he's the best in the country. I see it every day in practice, he can do everything."
Morris agrees with his teammate, but his talent level still leaves his critics wanting more, and people wonder whether he wants to
be great as much as others want it for him.
"That doesn't bother me at all, I hear it all the time," Morris said of the criticism. "I know I have to
take over -- it's just something I have to do."
But Morris wants more than just individual props from hoops observers.
"Our only goal is to win the national championship, to be in the national championship game," Morris said. "We have all of the weapons to do that."
While Baxter says that Maryland's goal of the national championship is the end, the Terps will focus on what is right in front of them.
"We want to win everything possible," Baxter said. "We want to win every game, every tournament, everything."
While Morris is the most talented, Dixon has arguably been the toughest player, and he is unafraid to be a go-to player.
"We have a lot of 'go-to' guys, a lot of guys who can score," Dixon said. "Don't get me wrong, but I would love to be that guy when coach needs it. I wouldn't mind taking the big shot at all."
Williams expects leadership from Dixon, Baxter and Morris. But he also believes point guard Steve Blake is critical.
"Blake needs to do a good job for us," Williams said of Blake, who averaged 6.3 assists as a freshman last season. "He did a great job as a freshman, and has improved his shot, but must be more consistent. If he's more consistent, we can do some things."
In addition to Blake, Williams can look to Tulane transfer Byron Mouton, whose 6-3, 200-pound frame will add a new dimension
"Byron can get to the basket," Williams said. "He can get fouled, and provides us with a big guard, rather than our compliment of
The Terps talk openly of reaching the Final Four for the first time in Maryland basketball history. The Terps feel that, despite their success, they have a lot to prove.
"The Final Four would be great," Dixon said, shaking his head and smiling at the thought of it. "We talk about it a lot. We would
like to get the monkey off of coach Williams' back. And if we listen to coach, we have all the ingredients to do it."