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After 17 straight seasons, a Gary Williams-led Maryland men's basketball team will not compete in the post-season.
Yet despite fans putting the Terrapins head coach on the hot seat, this may have been Williams' best job of coaching in all of his 22 seasons with at the helm of the team.
Entering the 2010-2011 season, Williams planned to lean on a sophomore center and a trio of seniors in an effort to compensate for the graduation of Bob Cousy Award winner Greivis Vasquez, as well as two-year starters Eric Hayes and Landon Milbourne.
But the seniors – Adrian Bowie, Cliff Tucker and Dino Gregory – had all of four games started the season previous. Throttled into the starting five alongside Jordan Williams, the trio and junior guard Sean Mosley often seemed unsure of their roles, and their struggles on the court made it evident.
Taking over for Hayes at point guard was Bowie, who assumed command of the offense after 28 games started in the 2008-2009 season. But after 17 turnovers in the team's first five contests, highlighted by a combined total of eight against No. 5 Pittsburgh and No. 11 Illinois in the 2K Sports Classic at Madison Square Garden.
Bowie's struggles at the point, combined with the emergence of guards Terrell Stoglin and Pe'Shon Howard, catered into the transition into the freshman sharing time in the starting lineup, allowing Bowie to concentrate on being a scorer.
The senior guard responded with a three-game stretch of double-digit scoring efforts before a one-point outing against Duke. Inconsistency plagued Bowie all season, regardless of which position he lined up at. He finished the year averaging eight points per game in conference play.
Similar problems plagued Tucker, as he rode a seemingly roller coaster-like ride this season largely due to streaky shooting and a tendency to appear absent on the court at times. After a loss at home to their first ACC foe, Boston College, Tucker was reduced to a sixth man role.
Initially Tucker thrived, scoring in double-digits for five straight, eight of the subsequent nine games. But down the stretch, and the Terrapins bubble grew larger and larger, Tucker struggled.
With eight games left in his final regular season stretch in a Terrapins uniform, Tucker surpassed single-digit scoring just one – in a crippling loss to Virginia Tech. Likewise, as Tucker's wavering play matched that of the faltering team.
Maryland won just three of those matchups, and lost in crucial showdowns against fellow bubble teams Virginia Tech and Boston College, and was handled by North Carolina in their last-ditch effort to beat a ranked opponent.
In those three games, Tucker recorded 20 total points, including an 0-4 mark from the field against the Eagles.
The struggles of the seniors, however, allowed Stoglin, Howard and Haukur Palsson begin to develop their games on the collegiate ranks.
Stoglin earned Atlantic Coast Conference All-Freshman Team honors after averaging nearly 12 points per game, and 19 points per game in the final seven games of the regular season, six of which he drew the starting nod. And despite a loss for his team, Stoglin's 28 points versus the Tar Heels were the most in a game for a Terrapin this season.
After a game-winning fadeaway jumper to edge College of Charleston 75-74, Howard drew praise for his late-game heroics, and had many wondering if was a precursor to an outstanding career – much like the former Terrapin who wore No. 21. Like Stoglin, Howard also played exceptional down the stretch, averaging more than seven points and almost four assists in the final 10 contests.
The freshmen backcourt tandem demonstrated to their head coach their varying array of skills, and that Stoglin and Howard can each execute the offense in their contrasting styles.
Stoglin looked to push the action in an up-tempo pace, and also made it apparent he is fearless to take a jump shot. And despite his freshman counterpart donning the No. 21, it was Stoglin's style of play that was comparable to Vasquez's.
Conversely, it was Howard who opted to command the half-court offense, proving to be more of a facilitator than anything else. He did, however, make it clear he is capable of slashing the line and drawing the foul, and that he is capable of draining a 3-point shot.
But while the Stoglin and Howard garnered much of the attention throughout the season, many eyes were focused on the freshman from Iceland during the ACC Tournament. Palsson, better known as "Hawk" in College Park, registered 10 points, four assists and four assists against N.C. State and Duke, his second and third career starts.
Palsson started in place of Tucker and Mosley, and perhaps offered fans of the Terrapins a glimpse of the starting five heading into the 2011-2012 season.
And this is why this could be Williams' best season coaching at Maryland – grooming three freshmen into starting roles while remaining competitive in the ACC and continuing the tradition of playing the senior class.
Perhaps the only sure bet Williams could make before the season was Jordan Williams, who looked to build on a strong finish in his freshman season.
In the team's two NCAA Tournament matchups last season, Williams recorded back-to-back double-doubles against Houston and Michigan State, including a season-best 21 points and 17 rebounds in the opening round. Little did he or his head coach know those types of performances would be customary in his sophomore campaign.
The All-ACC performer would lead Maryland in points (16.9) and rebounds (11.8), en route to setting a number of school records. Williams surpassed Len Elmore with 13-game streak of consecutive double-doubles, culminating in 25 on the season, another all-time mark. He also led the ACC in rebounding, the first Terp to do so since Joe Smith did so 15 years ago.
The problem for Gary Williams' team all year long was consistency outside the realm of Jordan Williams. Shooting, effort, holding onto a lead – a different problem arose at every loss. But these are characteristics of a young basketball team, a team undoubtedly in a rebuilding mold.
Still, however, Williams managed his team to a 19-win season, the 15th consecutive time he has accomplished that fear. Given the circumstances, fans should not be calling for Williams' job; they should be thanking him for staying.
Williams has assembled a talented nucleus of young players to go along with Williams, all of which with a year of ACC competition under their belt. But the potential does not end there.
Four-star forward Mychal Parker played all of 80 minutes this year will be a key component next year as he, along with James Padgett, trying to fill the void left by Gregory (9.1 ppg, 5.8 rpg). But Parker will not be the only player worth paying attention to.
In spite of criticism of his recruiting tactics, Williams has already gained commitments from two highly-touted high school seniors.
Headlining the class of 2011 is Baltimore product Nick Faust. The No. 13 SG in the nation, a four-star recruit, is expected to provide the Terrapins with a touch of 3-point shooting, an aspect of the offense often lacking in their offense.
Only one question remains – will Jordan Williams return for his junior season? After finishing tops in the country in double-doubles, Williams could potentially forgo his third season and take his talents to the NBA Draft. It is a decision he, his family and his head coach will tend to in the ensuing weeks.
Should Williams stay with the Terrapins, he will be joined by a pair of seasoned guards, a highly regarded recruiting class and the senior presence of Mosley. With Duke, Boston College and Virginia Tech all teams losing their senior stars, Maryland stands to be considered a favorite for the conference crown.
If that were the case, then perhaps a missed chance at the NCAA Tournament this year, coupled with a missed invitation to the NIT, may be forgotten and forgiven. After all, a 15-year post-season streak came to an end in 2008 for the New York Yankees only to win the World Series the following year.
With all of the progress made, there is no doubt Williams conjured up one of the most remarkable seasons in his career. And despite the criticism now, the Terrapins should come out fiery and driven to prove their doubters wrong, as any Gary Williams-coached team should do.
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