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Williams muting Terps’ critical masses

Any reasonable scenario has Gary Williams and Maryland in the NCAA tournament now, even with a minimum of four games still to be played, even with a visit from powerful North Carolina and a trip to Duke remaining.

Any reasonable scenario has Gary Williams and Maryland in the NCAA tournament now, even with a minimum of four games still to be played, even with a visit from powerful North Carolina and a trip to Duke remaining.

Beating Florida State on Wednesday night at home almost assuredly put Maryland back in the big action. And it stiff-arms the boo-birds who were popping up in and around College Park with alarming regularity, memory-challenged cynics who were hinting that Williams should be in trouble if he didn't get back to the NCAAs this season after two years away.

Breathing just a tiny sigh of relief before turning his attention to Sunday's game against the Tar Heels, Williams sat in his dressing room and took a brief look back. Publicly, he had refrained from even addressing the critics. But late Wednesday night, the question was asked if he felt pressure this season to win again, if he had been bothered by the increasing criticism that said he and the program were on the slide.

"I think anybody who says 'it doesn't bother me' when people criticize you and your program aren't telling the full truth," Williams said. "Yeah, it bothered me. I understand you are judged on one thing now: Did you get in? But we've had [two losing seasons] here, and that was when we had to play walk-ons in the ACC because we couldn't recruit. I know people have short memories, but really . . . seriously. Two Finals Fours and an NCAA championship . . . it's like it didn't happen or was ancient history."

Williams wasn't in a rant. He was speaking essentially in monotone, a coach worn out from coaxing another victory from his team. He's not the only one amazed by the short memories in and around Maryland, which had never sent a men's basketball team to the Final Four before he led one there in 2001. The fact that Williams even has to explain himself speaks to something incredibly greedy and shortsighted about many of the people who call themselves fans of Maryland basketball. But the ones who booed last season most likely weren't around when Williams essentially saved the program back in 1989, when it was on life-support.

"I was doing pretty good at Ohio State when the call came," Williams said, managing a smile. "I was king in Columbus. . . . If I had known what was going on before I got here, I probably wouldn't have come. Nobody knew how bad things were going to get [at Maryland], how difficult it was going to be."

Probably no coach of his stature would have come, and he answered the call primarily because Maryland is his alma mater. Len Bias had died in June 1986. One scandal after another followed, some academic, some athletic, all of it happening before Williams arrived in 1989. The NCAA was camped out in College Park, looking real close at Bob Wade, and ultimately hit Maryland with that brutal probation that took the team off television and out of the ACC tournament for a year.

"I had players being pulled off the practice floor to go and talk to lawyers," Williams said. "If Walt Williams doesn't stay, we go down to five or six wins, and we couldn't have even recruited Joe Smith and Keith Booth."

Booth, now one of Williams's assistants, walked in and out of the dressing room during the conversation. Lefty Driesell and his former assistant, Joe Harrington, came in to offer congratulations. Of course, their memories are not short. Anyway, there are very few cynics to win over at the moment because Williams and his assistants (Booth, Michael Adams and Chuck Driesell) have put together a team that has some very nice pieces.

Maryland has ballhandlers, passers, defenders, finishers, a little bit of depth . . . just not enough shooters.

But against Florida State, the Terrapins showed that, at their best, they are good enough to finish fifth or sixth in the ACC and hurt somebody's feelings in March.

Wednesday night, they played through severe foul trouble and a couple of shooting droughts, and did some of their best work in half-court sets at the end of the game when the Seminoles, desperate to make the NCAA tournament themselves, were scrambling to come back. It has the feel of one of those Gary Williams teams that understands it can best please him by battling.

"I'm beginning to believe in those guys . . . they're developing an inner strength," Williams said. "Look, we've had to regroup. I had to put some pressure on some guys to play early in their careers. Right now, we're very positive about ourselves."

Last season, just four ACC teams made the NCAA tournament in an uncommonly down year. Maryland was hardly some ragtag outfit. The Terrapins won 19 games and went 8-8 in league play. But the conference is perceived as being so much stronger this season. The ACC coaches are lobbying openly for eight or nine teams, though it's difficult to make the case for FSU now that the 'Noles are 5-9 in league play. Six seems perfectly reasonable (North Carolina, Virginia, Boston College, Virginia Tech, Duke and Maryland) unless Clemson and Georgia Tech can finish with a flourish.

Even so, a 21-win Maryland team should be a lock for an at-large bid. That will make 12 NCAA bids in the last 14 seasons, and it's at least a dozen consecutive years of sellouts, which is something that might be easy to do in Lawrence, Kan., or Chapel Hill, N.C., but very difficult to do in a metropolitan area with as many sporting options as Washington-Baltimore.

When Gary Williams left the court Wednesday night, it was to cheers.

Carolina awaits. The ACC tournament awaits. The NCAA tournament awaits.

The phone will be ringing in a day or two with ticket requests. Even some of the people with the really short memories will want good seats in mid-March.