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Williams on tour de force

April 19, 2002|BY DAN KAUFFMAN

kauffman@herald-mail.com

As the line for autographs grew longer and longer Thursday night before the Hagerstown Boys and Girls Club's 12th Annual Steak and Burger Dinner, Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams was asked if his life had returned to normal.

"Does it look like it?" Williams asked back, briefly glancing at the throng of well-wishers lined up at the Sheraton Four Points Hotel. "I haven't even had a chance to think about the last game."

The definition of normal changed for Williams when he and the Terrapins won their first NCAA Tournament championship 18 days ago. Old acquaintences and co-workers suddenly reappeared with congratulations, and everyone wants a little bit of his time.

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"(There's) a lot of people I've heard from all over the country," Williams said. "I probably have 10,000 pieces of mail I haven't got to yet.

"It's a good thing. You work hard to win, so whatever (normal) means, it's good."

Some things remain status quo from year to year, regardless of the newfound celebrity a championship provides. Annually, there are seniors who face the next step as the NBA Draft approaches, underclassmen with the decision to declare or stay in school and players with new opportunities to shine in a Terps uniform.

For Juan Dixon, Lonny Baxter and perhaps Byron Mouton, the draft marks the passing from one stage of a career to the next.

"With Dixon and Baxter, they're just staying in shape, as well as Byron," Williams said. "Byron has the size and shape, at 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds, in the backcourt that teams like."

After a stunning senior season in which Dixon became the only player in NCAA history to record 2,200 points, 300 steals and 200 3-pointers in a career, Williams praised him as "the best player" in school history.

"I thought he was the best player in the country this year, because we won the championship," Williams said.

"He had a great year, and he proved himself against the best."

Looking forward, the biggest question mark for next season is whether Chris Wilcox will return for his junior season.

"I see him every day," Williams said. "He's trying to find out as much as he can about the situation. He doesn't have to make a decision until May 12 (the filing deadline for the draft), so he's taking his time. I wouldn't say he's leaning any which way."

Steve Blake will be back for his senior season, along with Tahj Holden, Ryan Randle and Drew Nicklaus - bench players last season with opportunities to start next season.

"Those guys you mention did a great job," Williams said. "There's the starters, but all of these guys have played key roles. They have championship experience."

Expectations probably won't be as high next season without Juan, Lonny and Byron.

"We won't be ranked as high (in the preseason), but that doesn't mean anything," Williams said.

What means something is this: With a national championship banner to hang in the new Comcast Center, Maryland has established itself as one of the premier programs in the country. Success - difficult to find when Williams took over in 1989 after scandal and just prior to serious NCAA sanctions - has become normal.

"We've been to the NCAA Tournament each of the last nine years, and only four schools have done that," Williams said. "We've been good for a while. We just won the championship this year."

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