The headline in the Baltimore Sun reads, "Maryland Stunned by William & Mary." Over at The Washington Post, the take is a little less stunned, "William & Mary Knocks off Maryland."
I'm partial to the Post's assessment, seeing as how W&M 83, Maryland 77, was a stunner only to those who haven't been paying close attention to college basketball this season, or for the last six or seven seasons in College Park. First of all, William & Mary is having itself a magical little season this year. They've now won 9 in a row and had already won at Wake by 10; defeated a good VCU team, and gave UConn a run for their money.
Right now, William & Mary has an RPI of, ahem, 5 and Maryland is at 106. That means if the tournament started today, the Tribe would be a two seed and Maryland would be hosting Radford in the first round of the College Basketball Invitational.
Our next "not quite shocking" revelation is that Maryland basketball ain't what it used to be. The Terps have one winning record in ACC play in the last six full seasons. When they've made the tournament in recent years, it's typically thanks to some late-season dramatic flourish, not a steady march through a solid year. Maryland basketball hasn't fallen off a cliff, it's simply not a top program anymore in performance or national reputation.
Want proof? After the loss Wed. night, ESPN's college basketball homepage did not mention the Terps' loss to W&M among its top 10 stories of the day. Point being, it's not news when Maryland loses at home to a team from the Colonial.
Every year for the past 3 in fact, a team from a weaker conference has come into Comcast Center and won, and sometimes it's happened more than once. In 2007-2008, a particularly crappy Maryland team lost to VCU, American University, and Ohio University (the loss to VCU took place at Verizon Center, the other 2 at home in Comcast); in 2008-2009, Maryland lost at home to Morgan State, a school with a program on the rise for sure, but one that has about as much business beating Maryland at home as Lefty Driesell has shopping at a Paul Mitchell salon.
And this year as if on cue before the ACC season, we have the Tribe from William & Mary walking into Maryland's building and owning the Terps from start to finish.
The final margin of 6 points was not indicative of the way in which the Tribe outplayed Maryland so thoroughly and completely. Put it this way, if a visitor from the planet "I don't know anything about college basketball" visited for one game, he would have thought that Maryland was the smaller school from the weaker conference, and W&M was the big, bad Major Conference player.
What Do We Expect? What Standard Should Maryland Basketball Meet?
Certainly it's not realistic for Gary and the Terps to go to the Final Four every year like they did in 2001 and 2002. But I think what fans expect - and what Maryland has failed to do - is put together a program that annually reaches or comes close to reaching the following goals:
Ranked in the top 25 most of the year - you get WAY more publicity and attention when you're ranked, your highlights aren't even on ESPN if you are not ranked or playing a ranked team.
Finish the ACC season in the top 1/3 of the conference, and once every few years, put together a really solid 12-4 or 13-3 campaign. We don't expect 12-4 or 13-3 every year, but once every four would be about right to be really, really good.
Play an exciting brand of basketball, with players who are fun to watch and a few of whom make it to the NBA every couple of years. Maryland's last solid NBA player was Steve Blake, who left the program in 2003. That's about to be 7 years ago. Since then, guys like Nik Caner-Medley, D.J. Strawberry, Chris McCray, etc. have come and gone, and none have stuck in the NBA, because, well, they're not good enough.
Maryland basketball fans want MARYLAND BASKETBALL - a program that gives Duke and UNC a run for their money, not some desperate to get the final at-large spot wannabe giant killer. For a while we WERE the giants. Not anymore.
All is not lost. The ACC season hasn't even started. This team can still make the tournament. But the idea of Maryland making a run in the tournament is about as likely as Gary watching a game calmly while seated with his legs crossed and his finger poised thoughtfully by his bottom lip, quietly making casual observances to his assistant coaches.
How Did We Get Here?
Prior to the start of this season, Maryland was named 9th on a list of the top 10 programs of the decade by a publication called Lindys, which has a website that features an NRA ad and looks like it was designed by a high school web workshop in 1997.
I guess you can't really leave off a team that went to two Final Fours and won a national championship. But here's Maryland's record since winning the national championship:
2002-2003 - 21-10, 11-5, NCAA Sweet 16, finished season ranked 17th - solid season - featured the Drew Nicholas flying down the court 3-pointer to beat UNC-Wilmington at the buzzer in the first round. Blake and Nicholas in the backcourt were a great pair. Maryland was a bucket away from the Elite 8 that year.
2003-2004- 20-12, 7-9, NCAA round of 32, finished season ranked 19th - that's the year of the amazing ACC tournament run led by John Gilchrist. The Terps were pretty mediocre other than that tournament, BUT that was an amazing and memorable tournament that made up for a lot of angst along the way. Lost a good game to Syracuse in the second round.
2004-2005 - 19-13, 7-9, NIT - rough year
2005-2006 - 19-13, 8-8, NIT - see 2004-2005
2006-2007 - 25-9, 10-6, ncaa round of 32, finished season ranked 17th - best Maryland team not featuring anyone from the national championship team. Maryland started the ACC season 3-6 then ripped off 7 straight wins. Lost to Butler in a close game in second round of NCAA tournament.
2007-2008 - 19-15, 8-8, NIT, unranked
2008-2009 - 20-13, 7-9, NCAA round of 32, probably got the very last at-large pick to the tournament, some nice wins on the season, but also some really horrendous losses where the Terps just got pummeled. Great win of Cal in first round, wiped off the floor by Memphis in round 2.
2009-2010 - 8-4 as of New Year's Eve 2009 and looking a lot like a team that doesn't have much mojo.
Overall record since national championship:
Record in past five full seasons prior to this season (04-05 - 08-09)
Does it Matter?
The sustained mediocrity of Maryland basketball over the past 7 years has numbed me to some extent. I still watch the games and follow the team, but I don't expect as much, at least not from this current group.
Do you really think this year's team has what it takes to make a run in the tournament? Can they possibly beat more quality teams than they lose to? What evidence is there to suggest that Landon Milbourne, Greivis Vasquez, and Eric Hayes will somehow transform into players that make Maryland anything more than a 8-8 team in the ACC, or worse?
My prediction - 4-12 in the ACC. This is the year the bottom falls out. I hope I'm wrong. I really like Maryland basketball. I don't want Gary's head on a platter. I don't really want a new coach. I just want Maryland basketball to be better.
Selfishly, some of my best sports memories of a lifetime are going to the Final Fours in 2001 and 2002 and living and dying with every bounce and basket those seasons. It was magical. I miss it. I took my five-year-old son to the William & Mary game last night. The crowd had about as much energy as the team. Which is to say, not much.
Here, then, is my rant from the side of me that REALLY CARES:
YOU'RE DAMN RIGHT IT MATTERS! WE USED TO HAVE A GREAT TEAM AROUND HERE. NBA PLAYERS CAME THROUGH THIS PROGRAM. MARYLAND BASKETBALL MEANT SOMETHING. YOU REMEMBER THE ELECTRICITY IN THE BUILDING THE FIRST TIME STEVE FRANCIS PUT ON A MARYLAND JERSEY?
YOU REMEMBER HOW MUCH FUN THE JUAN DIXON YEARS WERE? HOW HARD THAT GUY WORKED? REMEMBER BLAKE STEALING THE BALL FROM JASON WILLIAMS? REMEMBER LONNIE BAXTER ABSOLUTELY SCHOOLING THE COLLINS BROTHERS TO GET TO THE FINAL FOUR? REMEMBER GARY CUTTING DOWN THE NET AND TWIRLING IT OVER HIS HEAD?
CHICKEN SHIT PROGRAMS LIKE AMERICAN, MORGAN STATE AND WILLIAM AND FREAKIN MARY WOULD NOT COME INTO OUR PLACE AND LEAVE WITH A WIN. WHERE IN THE HELL IS THE PRIDE IN THE NAME ON THE FRONT OF THAT JERSEY? IS THIS REALLY THE BEST THAT MARYLAND BASKETBALL CAN DO?
WE USED TO HAVE A LOUD, RAUCOUS, COOL INTIMIDATING HOME COURT ADVANTAGE. NOW THE SEATS AREN'T FULL, THE CROWD IS DEAD AND OUR TEAM -- FORGIVE ME - CAN'T SHOOT!! WHAT IN THE NAME OF WALT WILLIAMS IS GOING ON AROUND HERE!!??
OK, I feel better now. Happy New Year. Go Terps.