Now, Maryland has lived through The Year After. It did nothing more--and nothing less--than was expected after the program was devastated by the death of Len Bias and the forced resignation of Lefty Driesell.
But now, everyone returns from a starting five that most ACC people feel has tremendous talent and, after this season, has plenty of experience. In short, there is no reason why the Terrapins can't win seven ACC games next season.
"If you just look at their talent, as athletes, as runners and jumpers, just playing basketball, they're going to be something to see," North Carolina Coach Dean Smith said. "Of course this year, you had to take their inexperience into account."
OK, let's do that. Maryland was inexperienced this year, that is why the Terrapins finished 9-17.
The school's longest basketball season came to a merciful and fairly painless conclusion a week ago Friday in the ACC Tournament, the Terrapins following their usual '87 script in losing to North Carolina: play tough for a half, then do a quick fade in the second.
The Terrapins thus went winless in ACC play for the first time in history and failed to win 10 games for the first time since 1969--the year before Charles G. Driesell roared into College Park.
Bob Wade took over from Driesell in October after Chancellor John Slaughter pushed out Driesell as a result of the Bias scandal and its aftershocks. Wade took over a team that was too young and lacking in depth, but not talent. The talent kept Maryland in a lot of games. Inexperience--on the part of the players and the coach--kept the Terrapins from winning more often.
Now though, the season and Wade's honeymoon are over. Perhaps no coach in basketball history has been so lauded for not winning. People talked constantly about how hard the Terrapins played. Why in the world wouldn't they play hard? CBS Sports even named Wade rookie coach of the year. How can a coach who doesn't win a conference game be given an award?
Wade supporters maintained he kept them competitive. But being competitive isn't that hard when no one expects you to win--especially your opponents. Most teams came out against the Terrapins on cruise control this season, then turned it on when they had to. Carolina looked decidedly bored for most of the first half and still had the game well in hand before the second half was five minutes old.
"Everybody in the ACC took us lightly," David Dickerson said. "And they played that way against us."
Exactly. Next year will be the first true test for Wade. Like his players, he should be better in tight situations than he was this year. If Driesell had coached this team, Maryland would have won four ACC games. But one season doesn't make, or break, a college coaching career.
"I thought we were competitive this year," Wade said. "Next year, we need to go up a notch. This year we were the doormat. Next year, we should be able to get to the middle of the pack."
Driesell did not leave a program devoid of talent. Georgia Tech Coach Bobby Cremins recently told a coaching friend that he thought Maryland had the second-best starting five in the ACC. It is back next season. Add 6-10 freshman Brian Williams and 6-9 Rodney Walker to the lineup, and Maryland will also have depth.
Wade will get players, make no mistake about that. The people who are predicting that Maryland will be back in the top 20 in two or three years are hardly going out on any kind of limb. The school's location, its association with the ACC and the tradition Driesell built, give it an excellent chance to get top players.
The question then, one that cannot be answered yet, is what Wade will do when he has the talent. Maryland was a good offensive team this season--shooting better than 50%. But it was often shaky on defense and it was out-rebounded 871-769 for the season.
Rebounding has more to do with smarts and desire than size. Maryland was a small team with a 6-7 center. But Duke made the Final Four a year ago with no one bigger than 6-8 in the lineup. There are other examples of small teams rebounding well.
But that is nitpicky. Before making judgments, let's wait and see what Wade does next year and the year after. Let's see if his players stay in school and graduate. Let's see if he wins in the ACC. If he does all those things he will deserve praise.
For now, Wade deserves time. He has that.