Gary Williams could sense the urgency among his players in mid-October, when the Maryland Terrapins gathered for their first week of practice and began building toward what would become the greatest men's basketball season in school history.
The Terps had been galvanized months earlier, after recovering from a midseason slump that threatened to ruin them. They finally had combined their obvious talent with toughness and a sense of mission, and had ridden that resolve all the way to their first Final Four appearance.
The NCAA tournament semifinal loss, in which the Terps blew a 22-point lead to Duke, had given this group all of the push it needed. Seven key returning players, beginning with seniors Juan Dixon, Lonny Baxter and Byron Mouton, were aching to play again.
"We know what it takes to get to the Final Four. We want to win a national championship," Dixon said shortly before Midnight Madness kicked off the preseason. "This is no joke."
Looking back on the road Maryland traveled to become the 2002 national champions with a 32-4 record, the Terps always knew they had the weapons, starting with a 24-year coach who understood the parts better than anyone else.
In Baxter and Dixon, Maryland had the veteran, inside-outside foundation every great team needs. A powerful post man teamed with a creative scorer who took equal pride in his defensive hustle and his ability to take over games.
The Terps had a seasoned, unselfish point guard in Steve Blake, a seasoned, unselfish garbage man in Mouton, a raw, high-flying power forward with scary potential in Chris Wilcox. They had 500 pounds of skilled, backup beef in forward Tahj Holden and center Ryan Randle and a guard in Drew Nicholas who lives to shoot but was ready and willing to spread himself among three positions. They welcomed their roles from the outset.
Unlike the 10-man rotation that had driven Maryland the season before, this was a leaner, meaner group with invaluable experience, a hint of arrogance and a collective eye on one prize. The players never hid the opinion that they were good enough to win it all, that anything less would be a major disappointment. They never deflected questions about their ultimate goal while they were assembling the school's best record ever.
"They've never wavered in terms of their confidence," Williams said Monday, in the moments after Maryland's 64-52 victory over Indiana for the NCAA title. "It's been interesting as a coach to watch them handle being the favorite in every game but two or three. We were ranked very high to start the year. We had to take a lot of teams' best shots. We never doubted what we were trying to do. I can't remember many bad practices."
And the Terps never stopped finding ways to win, never stopped figuring out how to win. From an artistic standpoint, the Indiana victory was about as sloppy and forgettable as a title game could be. It marked the second-lowest scoring output in a Terps victory this year, the lowest-scoring NCAA title game in 19 years - before the three-point line was introduced.
But, in a way, it was an essential reminder of what made this Maryland team tick.
"We did what we had to do, just like we had done all year," Baxter said.
On the nights Maryland had trouble scoring, it used its size and quickness and stubbornness at the defensive end, where Dixon was always lurking near a passing lane ready to pounce on a steal, or Baxter was stopping an opponent's momentum with a blocked shot, or Wilcox was soaring to grab one of those majestic rebounds, or Blake was disrupting an offense by hounding an opposing point guard.
"We learned how to win in different ways, and we stayed mature about it," Nicholas said.
Maryland, which had winning streaks of eight and 13 before putting together a six-game streak to win the championship, always put together the offensive run to seal a game, always had an answer. The Terps pounded the ball inside relentlessly and beat 15 conference foes by an average of 15.7 points. They often cruised in the second half.
Besides Dixon's making huge shots throughout the NCAA tournament to put the finishing touches on a brilliant career, Maryland will be remembered for elevating its game in various ways to finish its greatest season.
When didn't Wilcox come through when the pressure was on? Duke's Mike Dunleavy, Kansas' Drew Gooden and Indiana's Jared Jeffries were among his most notable victims. Who would have thought Baxter could make 15 of 18 free throws in a game? That's what he did to help eliminate Connecticut in the regional final and win his second regional MVP award.
Did anyone expect the Terps to win their last four games without getting an exceptional effort from Blake, who struggled mightily at times after an excellent regular season?
In Maryland's eyes, there was never a doubt as to who would be the last team standing. The Terps always believed their unselfishness and tenacity would pull them through. The season could not end any other way.
They always believed someone would step up - someone like Mouton, who put together his best season ever, became a defensive stopper late in the season and made some heroic saves of loose balls in the final five minutes against Indiana. Typical Mouton. Typical Maryland.
"I just wanted to come in and make a difference," said Mouton, who led Tulane in scoring for two years, transferred to Maryland and become a role player who sublimated his scoring on most nights while pushing the Terps toward the ultimate goal.
"I just wanted to give us a spark, gives us some energy, help give our team a chance to win. If hustling is what it takes to win, that's what I'm going to do to help us win."
Maryland rode that attitude all the way into the history books.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times