Maryland’s men’s basketball team won the NCAA national championship in 2002, which fits nicely into the 20-year window of NBC Sports Washington’s The Big Twenty project.
But to understand how important that accomplishment is, you need to go outside that window to 1990. For multiple violations under then-head coach Bob Wade, Maryland was placed on three-year probation, banned from the postseason for two years and barred from appearing on television during the 1991-1992 season. The program, fresh off the tragedy of Len Bias’ death in 1986, had hit rock bottom.
Enter Gary Williams. The Maryland alum returned to College Park in 1989, unsure of what punishments were coming. His task: Build Maryland into a nationally competitive program while dealing with Duke, North Carolina and the rest of the ACC blue bloods, all while handcuffed by major sanctions. You know, no big deal.
Build the program he did. By 1994, the Terrapins were back in the NCAA Tournament and the Sweet 16. By 1998, Williams had the Terps as high as No. 2 in the AP poll. And just when the fanbase thought the program had plateaued, in 2001 Williams guided Maryland to its first Final Four appearance.
The loss to Duke in that year’s NCAA semifinal was a bitter pill, but Williams had almost his entire roster returning. That included a starting lineup of Juan Dixon, Lonny Baxter, Steve Blake, Chris Wilcox and Byron Mouton. Most of them had been overlooked in high school. All had been passed over by other power conference schools for varying reasons. Williams built his program around these diamond-in-the-rough, chip-on-the-shoulder players with something to prove. His roster was full of them in 2002. It was a perfect fit at Maryland, a program constantly ignored in the rugged, tradition-rich ACC.
Maryland ran through its 2001-2002 schedule with ease. With a balanced lineup and a rock-solid eight-man rotation, the Terps went 15-1 in the ACC. That included an 87-73 blitz of No. 1-ranked Duke in February. They earned a top seed in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history. Maryland beat a UConn team with Ben Gordon, Caron Butler and Emeka Okafor in the Elite Eight to make its second straight Final Four. A week later, it knocked off Drew Gooden, Kirk Hinrich, Nick Collison and Kansas to make the title game.
On April 1st, 2002, the Terrapins beat Indiana, 64-52, to claim the school’s first national championship. Dixon led the way with 18 points and keyed a 22-8 second-half run to put the Hoosiers away. He earned first-team All-America honors. His retired jersey currently hangs in Xfinity Center. Williams was named ACC Coach of the Year. The floor of Xfinity Center is now Gary Williams Court.
The lasting image of the title game is Dixon heaving the ball to the Georgia Dome rafters as the last seconds ticked off and his teammates celebrated. For Dixon, the championship was the final
highlight of a record-setting career in College Park.
For Williams, it was validation. He had built the team his way, with players in his image. For the program, it was the concluding step of a journey that started in 1990.
Maryland had climbed out of the deepest valley to reach college basketball’s highest peak.