Here’s a funny story. I was at a friend’s house in Baltimore County over the weekend, a few hours before the Memphis game, and there was another guy there who was wearing a Maryland sweatshirt. We had the following exchange:
— Guy: Terps playing today?
— Me: Yes.
— Guy: But wait a second. I thought you could only lose once.
— Me: Yeah, that’s right. Maryland won their first game.
— Guy: Naw, man. They lost to Duke, remember?
— Me: That was the ACC tournament.
— Guy: Huh.
(Guy pauses for a few seconds)
— Guy: The ACC tournament, though, is the big one.
— Me: Well. How do you mean?
— Guy: That one’s got Duke AND North Carolina in it. So that’s the biggest tournament.
— Me: Well, this one has both those teams in it, too. And it’s for the national championship. The ACC tournament is only for the ACC championship.
— Guy: So then, the ACC one is more important, right?
— Me: (Looking around for ejector seat button)
That’s really not appropos of anything, except maybe a reminder that some fans, probably including me, just take all this way too seriously. There’s always the guy out there who just likes to wear the sweatshirts. So good for you, Guy. If you’re reading…..you’re not reading.
Anyway, so as you may be aware here a full four days after the fact, the Terps did lose to Memphis 89-70 in the second round of what is, in my humble opinion, the most important of the college basketball tournaments. So now, it is only natural to ponder the season that was. Allow me to stroke my chin ponderously while gazing at an indeterminant point on the wall of my office.
Here’s my bottom line on the season: the 2008-2009 Terps made chicken salad out of some serious chicken shit. Really, think about all the chicken shit that got shoveled their way this season — bad losses, more bad losses, one historically bad loss, one Washington Post expose on their coach, a steady torrent of recruiting questions, and a public catfight with the athletic department. Oh, and let’s not forget the walking triple-double-slash-smackdown-episode-slash-reporter’s-wet-dream that is Mister Greivis Vasquez.
When it’s all listed out like that, you can see how much chicken shit it really is. That’s enough chicken shit to warm your house for seven winters. But that’s what makes this season so great. Gary circled the wagons, dug the bunker, and whatever other cliche you want to use to get them into his patented underdog mentality. It wasn’t what I would call a magnificent stretch run, but they slew just enough giants to reach the tournament and the 20-win plateau, and even won a game in the postseason.
But at the same time, I feel like we weren’t far away from eating a bunch of chicken shit sandwiches. If we could go back in a time machine and redo this season 10 more times, they probably would miss the tournament seven or eight of the times. And that is discomfiting. I am discomfitted by that. It’s like back in college when you finally get that Beeramid to stand on its own in all its magnifience, but it’s two in the morning, and everyone’s all hammered and stumbly wumbly, and that is one shaky Beeramid, so everyone just snaps a quick cellphone picture and slowly backs away before it all comes tumbling down.
But you know what? That’s okay, to a point. Drama is part of the fun of sports. But on the other hand, I think we can stand to take another look at the Beeramid in the sober light of the morning. I think that bad boy could use a little buttressing. Some fair questions need to be asked. One of those questions is about the questions themselves. When did being a fan and being a critic become mutually exclusive? I’m tired of anyone who questions or criticizes the Terps getting torn down for not being “a true fan,” or being “a Gary hater,” or having some kind of hidden agenda, as if there’s a bunch of archvillains out there who went through four years of journalism school just so they could finally have their chance at tearing down the University of Maryland basketball team. Come on. The Terps have to address their recruiting problems. If they get tired of hearing that, they should do something to address the issue…and the good news is, it seems like maybe they are, so that’s good. And sorry all you lockstep Gary jingoists, but his coaching has been uneven these past few years. It just has. Please consult the records. Players have come and gone, but the roller coaster ride continues. Wild underachievement, followed by wild overachievement, lather, rinse, repeat. His teams often seem too high-strung, especially in crunch time. Lately, he hasn’t always gotten the most out of his players, especially the bigger guys (Caner-Medley, Garrison, Holden, Gist, Ibekwe, Osby, Bowers, Mardesich, Fofana, Dupree, Burney). He’s a great in-game coach, especially against the Carolinas of the world, but where is that great in-game coaching against the Morgan States and Clemsons of the world? How good is it in March if you can’t also bring it in January? How good are your motivational skills if your team’s back has to apparently be against the wall in order for your messages to be effective?
These are all fair questions. And just to be clear, I love Gary. He’s my coach. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. But you know what? It’s fair to ask these questions of a program and coach that want so badly to be considered among the sport’s perennial elite. With high achievement comes high expectations and high standards. I don’t think people should object to fair questions like these. That said, I really liked what East Coast Bias had to say about Gary recently. Gary is Maryland and Maryland is Gary. When he pumps his fist toward the student section, that is nothing but good, old-fashioned solidarity. It’s downright freaking inspiring. It’s the effortless leadership that shows through in the way he coaxed and prodded this group to a successful season. Imagine what can be done if the team is suddenly willing and able to apply his lessons consistently.
Next season could be big. It looks like vaunted recruit Lance Stephenson is leaning toward Kansas, but they’ve still got bigs Jordan Williams and James Padgett all saddled up and ready to (hopefully) ride to the rescue in the frontcourt. Vasquez is testing the NBA waters, but honestly my gut says he’ll be back. Hayes and Milbourne will be senior leaders. Bowie, Mosely, Tucker, Burney, Goins and, of course, the intriguing Jin Soon Kim will all be a year older. Suddenly, a fairly young and shallow squad could be fairly experienced and deep. If we can put it all together, we could go a long way.
It just sucks that I have to wait seven months to see. In the meantime, I’ll savor this basketball season for a while. Questions abound, as they always do, but in the end, it was actually a pretty special year. I’ll remember this group for being scrappy and for never doing things the easy way, always insisting on snatching something from the jaws of something else. But no matter. They got it done, and congrats to them. Pass the chicken salad.