Respect has come at a tortoise's pace for the Maryland Terrapins this season. When Center Buck Williams told a group of Atlantic Coast Conference sportswriters last November that his team would win the league title, they laughed him down and voted Maryland sixth. Then the Terrapins had to win 13 of their first 15 games and lead the ACC for seven weeks before they made the Top 20, something five other conference teams had already done. The most significant act of acceptance came even later, when Wild Bill Hagy, the bearded Baltimore cabbie with the beer-belly body English, began leading cheers for Maryland, as he had last summer for the Orioles. Wild Bill's "R" may be barely distinguishable from his "P" but the message is clear: the Terps are for real.
Maryland proved it again last week, raising its record to 19-5 with home victories over Boston University, 99-76, and East Carolina, 85-72, before losing at Duke, 66-61. Despite the setback, the Terps remained in the ACC lead and seem a safe bet to finish with 20 wins and a Top 20 ranking for the first time in four years.
Maryland has confounded its detractors and returned to prominence because Lefty Driesell is a better coach and Albert King is a better player than either had previously demonstrated. In their first two seasons together, King lacked the consistency and confidence he had displayed when he was the nation's most publicized high school player. Driesell, for his part, had been unable to mold a cohesive lineup from a roster of prima donnas. As a result, Maryland limped to sixth-and fourth-place finishes in the ACC. "Basketball is a team game but Maryland didn't play it that way the last two years," says Guard Reggie Jackson.
This year, however, Maryland is every bit a team. It isn't just happenstance that as the Terrapins' record soared above the 19-11 mark of last season, their assists were up from a selfish 44% of all baskets to a more comradely 56%. The player with the most dramatic improvement in this regard is junior Forward Ernest Graham, who has kept his scoring average around 17 points a game while passing more often and shooting more selectively. "I didn't pay any attention to the team concept before," he admits. "I didn't realize and appreciate the ability of other players."
Graham is not fully assimilated, but he is selfless enough to fit into Driesell's new offense. Before the season began, Lefty junked his old double-post and installed new positions and new responsibilities in a 2-1-2 attack. The most important changes moved Graham from the backcourt to create a quick frontline, with King and Williams, and gave sophomore Greg Manning a regular spot as the shooting guard. Shooting star is more like it. Manning is averaging 14.8 points a game because his accuracy from the field (64.1%) and the foul line (90.6%) leads the ACC and surpasses the school records. The baby-faced marksman says, "It's reached the stage now that if I miss a shot I get mad at myself."
And King is no longer frustrating himself or his admirers. He has become the team's spiritual as well as scoring leader, increasing his average from 15.9 to 21.3 points per game. Instead of waiting for the game to come to him, as he did the past two years, King is reaching out and grabbing it. "When Albert came to Maryland he wasn't ready for the responsibility," Driesell says. "He was hesitant, even scared, so he played tight."
In those first two seasons, says King, "I knew I was a good player but I didn't know how good. I lacked confidence. I knew I wasn't living up to everyone's expectations, but only the people close to me knew how much it hurt me."
Finally, King decided to test himself. He worked "double hard, maybe triple hard" last summer, running, shooting, adding muscle to his slender 6'6" body. "Albert worked so hard I thought he'd kill himself," says Williams.
King likes to believe that this determined effort brought out Albert King the person; Albert King the folk hero he finds a difficult role to play. He is bothered because "whatever I do is what people expected me to do. They won't feel that I've really accomplished anything, but I know I've improved."
King wasn't the only Terrapin to make special preparations for this season. Taylor Baldwin worked 27 pounds off his pudgy 6'10" frame and has become the team's top frontcourt reserve after doing mop-up work as a freshman. In December, Baldwin even performed respectably as the starting center while Williams was nursing a broken finger.
With Williams in the lineup, though, Maryland can be as good as any team in the country. Last year he was the ACC's top freshman and led the league in rebounding. This season he is again averaging 10 rebounds a game and has increased his scoring average from 10 to 15.2. Notably for a 6'8" center in a league that features 7'4" Ralph Sampson and 6'11" Mike Gminski, Williams hasn't been outscored by an ACC opponent all year.
The only other players who have seen much action on this young Maryland team are Jackson and Dutch Morley, sophomores who have divided starting time at playmaking guard. Morley is the better passer and Jackson the better defender, and neither gets in the way of the team's four double-figure scorers.
The use of fewer players with well-defined roles marks a reversion to the old Driesell coaching philosophy. For years Lefty has battled the judgment that he was a great recruiter but a mediocre coach. There was merit to this view because the signing of players like Tom Mc-Millen, Moses Malone and Albert King vouched for his recruiting technique, and Maryland's failure to reach the final four or win the ACC tournament lent credibility to the criticism of his coaching.
Now, however, Driesell may deserve a new image. Consider the way he has responded to adversity. Only last spring, Washington's two dailies ran stories headlined: CRUCIAL DAYS FOR DRIESELL and, more ominously, THIS COULD BE THE LAST ROUNDUP FOR LONESOME LEFTY. The problems were many: the quality of the team was declining, attendance was suffering, players were transferring and Driesell's three assistant coaches and longtime secretary had left for better jobs. It even appeared that Lefty had lost his recruiting touch, because he was in the process of signing a junior-college player who, it later developed, wouldn't qualify academically and two unheralded high school players. This was the man who a decade before had hoped to make Maryland "the UCLA of the East"?
Well, look again, because right now UCLA would probably like to be the "Maryland of the West." Without a new ingredient to throw into and possibly ruin this year's stew, Driesell has had to do some serious coaching. And to the surprise of many, he has done it. "Coach has gotten a lot of criticism in the past," says Graham, "but he's proven everyone wrong with a team they voted out."
"He's definitely a better game coach this year," says Jackson. "His decisions are clicking."
As a result, Maryland has won five of six games that were decided by four points or fewer, and in a six-point game, the Terrapins ended a five-year losing streak to North Carolina. Maryland won that game in Chapel Hill last month because it shot 73% and built a nine-point lead in the first half by perfectly executing a spread offense that Driesell had gotten from former Marquette Coach Al McGuire before the season began.
"There are lots of people who can draw plays on a blackboard better than me," Driesell says. "I'm more of a motivator than a teacher. But this doesn't mean I'm not a good coach. People say Driesell ain't doing no coaching, his guys are just running up and down. Well, you couldn't have teams that regularly shoot over 50% if you weren't coaching. I'm just not the kind of coach who makes a lot of changes in a game. We prepare thoroughly in practice and I don't like to change in a game to something we haven't worked on. So I think all that stuff about bench coaching is overplayed. The only way you can really judge a coach is by the number of games he's won."
By that measure, Driesell certainly stands tall. He's averaged 20 victories a season in his nearly 20 years as a head coach, nine at Davidson and more than a decade at Maryland. But as Lefty's players know, the Terrapins have lost more important games than they've won. "Maryland has always lost the big one, but we aren't going to do that this year," says Jackson. "If we lose, people will just say that they were right about us all along and that now we are back where we should have been."
Wild Bill Hagy knows the feeling all too well.