A night to forget
These Terrapins could take a lesson from their Final Four predecessors
They still dripped with swagger, the 2002 Terps, together for the first time since they visited the White House as national champions. Lonny Baxter chest-bumped Gary Williams, who again thrust his fist toward the Xfinity Center crowd. Byron Mouton jabbed some of that team’s hardware into the air. The last player introduced was Juan Dixon, who this week was still texting teammates about what they accomplished 15 years ago.
“Bro, we played hard as a [unprintable],” Dixon wrote to Baxter on Monday night. “No wonder we’re champions.”
“We were all hungry,” Baxter responded.
They weren’t referring to this year’s team in those texts, not
even obliquely. But you couldn’t forget their words, not after the current Terps were bullied throughout a second straight humbling home loss, this one by 14 points to middling Iowa. These lifeless Terps were strong-armed in the paint, giving up an obscene 30 second-chance points. They seemed less and less engaged as the game meandered on. Their star was as absent as their defense, and they were showered with boos after an unchallenged Hawkeyes putback and again as time ran out.
The 83-69 loss gave Maryland its first three-game losing streak in nearly five years. And this worst game of the season came in front of the best team in school history, the one whose trademark snarl doesn’t seem to have faded with age. The former stars had happily dished out advice hours earlier during a 15th anniversary celebration that brought Dixon and Steve Blake, Baxter and Chris Wilcox back to College Park. And that advice didn’t seem any less valid by the time fans began losing their patience.
“I think they’ve just got to grind,” Wilcox said during a lengthy monologue about this year’s young Maryland team. “Sometimes when I look at [their] game, sometimes I see the hunger. I see it. But down the stretch, I just feel that I want to see more.”
“We were just a gritty team that was really hungry,” Baxter added. “I wish we could pass our hunger on.”
Hunger and grit seem less important than size and talent, and yet something has soured with this Maryland group that entered February with such promise. They were 20-2 then, the best start in school history, with three freshmen starters and a veteran star who all seemed immune to self-doubt. Since then? The Terps have lost five of seven. They have wilted late, failing to outscore their opponent in the second half of any of those games. Over their past three second halves, they have been outscored by 39. And the worst of it has come in College Park. The two Final Four teams lost a combined three times at home. These Terps lost three home games in February.
Parading those Maryland icons through College Park will never be easy for the teenagers charged with living up to their example; the current freshmen were barely out of diapers in 2002. And as much as they talk about their hunger and grit, the Final Four teams also were talented; the reason this 15th anniversary outshined the 10-year celebration was because five years ago, Blake and Wilcox were still in the middle of long NBA careers.
Still, the contrast on this night was particularly striking. First there was Williams, trying to explain why his first Final Four team began bubbling over with belief right around this time of year.
“It’s a fine line [between] confidence and no confidence,” he said Saturday afternoon. “And the timing’s very important, when you hit that confidence level. When we got to the NCAA tournament, we thought we were really good. Whether we were or not, we thought we were really good.”
Five hours later, his successor stood in front of a microphone, with a team that seems convinced of the opposite.
“We need a little bit more positive energy in our team moving forward, a little bit more confidence,” Mark Turgeon said. “We tried really hard going into this game to make sure we have confidence. It’s what transpires during the game — are you tough enough to fight through it? And the last couple games, we just haven’t been. That’s what made us 22-4 was our toughness: our mental toughness, our physical toughness … We’ve just been so tough. And for some reason the last few games, we haven’t been.”
The easiest explanation is that Maryland overachieved through three months and is now floating back toward reality. The three freshmen starters have made just 36 percent of their shots during this skid. The front line is taxed, with Michal Cekovsky’s busted ankle costing Turgeon a big body. Melo Trimble seems convinced that the solution is for him to shoot more from beyond the arc, but he made 2 of 15 three-point attempts in the past two losses. Better find a different solution.
Who knows whether the overachieving Terps read too many kind headlines, but their predecessors sought out the reverse. They are paunchier now and don’t have as much hair. They have wives and kids. And they’re still bristling at the world.
“All of us were pretty much underdogs our whole life,” Baxter said. “We never really got a lot of credit for the things that we did. We were never labeled as big-time players or superstars. So we just wanted to show everybody that we were serious. We wanted to show everybody how good we were.”
So if Turgeon’s current group needs a confidence boost, maybe they can mainline some from the past. His team still could reach 25 wins for a third straight year, something previously accomplished only by the graying men honored at halftime. The Terps still have a shot at equaling the school’s three-year record for wins. And the big picture is still fine, with more talent arriving next year.
But on that matter, too, remember the past. Terence Morris was in the building Saturday, a member of the 2001 Final Four team who was gone before the national championship. He still thinks his sophomore year team, the one with Steve Francis, was the most talented he played on. That won’t earn you a standing ovation 15 years later.
“It doesn’t matter how talented you are,” Morris said. “It’s within the players.”
Which is why Turgeon spent Saturday night talking about positive energy and toughness. His Terps look out of sync and out of gas. They’re also running out of time to fix it. For more by Dan Steinberg, visit washingtonpost.com/dcsportsbog.
L.G. Gill (10) fails to corral a rebound against Iowa at Xfinity Center. The Hawkeyes were led by a 24-point outburst from freshman guard Jordan Bohannon, who hit eight three-pointers.