The two embraced near center court at Comcast Center while thousands showered applause and earsplitting cheers upon the senior and his remarkable accomplishments after four years in College Park.
Just moments before their biggest game—and victory—of the season against hated Duke, Greivis Vasquez and Gary Williams stood alone on Senior Night, sharing a brief moment that no one could take away, chastise, or disparage. Despite three up-and-down seasons that saw both men experience intense—and sometimes malicious—scrutiny, the senior guard and veteran coach stood tall on the Comcast floor, basking in the accomplishments of a brilliant 2009-10 season that was about to get even better.
Now, less than a week after clinching a share of the ACC regular season title and currently preparing for the ACC tournament as the No. 2 seed, Vasquez and Williams added to those accomplishments on Tuesday, earning ACC Player of the Year and Coach of the Year honors in a slam-dunk vote.
Selected by the Atlantic Coast Sports Media Association, Vasquez received 39 of 53 votes (74 percent), overwhelmingly besting Duke senior Jon Scheyer (12 votes) and Virginia Tech’s Malcolm Delaney (two). The Caracas, Venezuela native is the fifth Terrapin to win the award and the first since Juan Dixon in 2002. The three others to win include Joe Smith (1995), Albert King (1980), and the late Len Bias (1985 and 1986).
Winning the ACC coaching honor for the second time in his career (2002), Williams grabbed 42 of 53 votes (79 percent), edging out Mike Krzyzewski (eight), Seth Greenberg (two), and Leonard Hamilton (one).
The juxtaposition of Vasquez and Williams is not only apparent with this year’s accolades but also to anyone that’s followed the tribulations of the Maryland basketball program over the last four years.
One has the “shimmy” and the uncanny ability to incite an entire crowd into a state of euphoria or utter disdain. No player in recent memory has tossed up as many inexplicable shots, only to have them fall at the most critical moments.
The other has the trademark fistpump and frequent eruptions in the direction of his own bench. He’s also been known to perspire a bit while outcoaching some of the finest minds in the college game.
Both were the obvious choices—and clearly the ACC media agreed—but neither man could describe the path traveled over the last four years as harmonious.
Vasquez came to the University of Maryland as a 19-year-old after playing at Montrose Christian, still adjusting to life in a new country when he first stepped foot in College Park. He will leave as one of the finest players in school history, becoming the first ACC player with 2,000 points, 700 assists, and 600 rebounds. His 2010 Player of the Year award was not only deserved for a brilliant senior season but also as a lifetime achievement award for becoming one of the better players in the history of the ACC.
“What he has done for himself—as a person, for his family, what lies ahead for him and his family—is a great story,” the coach recently said about Vasquez. “To see the guy that comes over here and can barely speak English at all and now he is going to graduate.”
But along the way, he was largely underappreciated by much of his own fan base and viciously targeted by opposing fans. The eccentric guard certainly brought much of the disdain upon himself, but not to the level of racist attacks and blatant prejudice encountered at several road venues.
The inconsistency in his play did little to ease the concerns with a struggling Maryland program that now found itself on the bubble annually after winning a national championship earlier in the decade. In many skeptical eyes, Vasquez was the poster child for the fall of the program, despite being the one player keeping it afloat.
It came as no surprise that Vasquez entered the NBA Draft following his junior season, only to return to school after being told again that he wasn’t good enough.
Not good enough.
The same words volleyed at Gary Williams throughout his coaching career. Even after resurrecting a Maryland program from the ashes to win its first national championship in 2002, the criticism had never been louder than in the last few years, culminating last season in a very public spat with athletic director Debbie Yow over recruiting tactics, graduation rates, and the program’s overall performance after missing the NCAA tournament in three of the previous four seasons.
Without drudging up these circumstances, Williams was clearly in a precarious position, needing to prove yet again that he was in fact good enough to lead the program. In one of the finest coaching performances of his career, Williams, with the help of a second-team All-ACC player in Vasquez, led an undersized and undermanned team to the NCAA tournament, appeasing the doubters—at least temporarily—and laying the groundwork for the current championship team.
A year later, there is no talk of being on the bubble as the Terps—and their coach—have no reason to sweat on Selection Sunday. Instead of needing two wins in the conference tournament to avoid the NIT, the Terrapins are eyeing three wins to cut down the nets in Greensboro, for no reason other than simply being good enough to do it—while improving their NCAA seeding in the process.
Williams was the unquestionable choice for the conference’s top coach, molding together a team that finished 13-3 in the ACC and won seven straight games to close the regular season.
Much like Williams turned to Dixon to form a partnership that resulted in a national championship in 2002, Williams and Vasquez coming together in these last four years was the perfect combination, each desperately needing the other, finally resulting in a championship team.
It’s hard to say how many coaches would have tolerated Vasquez’s inconsistent play and sometimes frustrating decision making before looking elsewhere for help. Would Vasquez have been a conference player of the year had he gone to Duke or Syracuse or North Carolina?
Would other coaches have endured the excruciating lows before enjoying the overwhelming highs?
“That’s part of the appeal [with Vasquez],” Williams said after the Duke victory. “You pull your hair out sometimes.”
That said, Williams desperately needed another player in the mold of Dixon, a diamond in the rough with the ability to blossom into a star through hard work while still maintaining that confidence in his coach. Vasquez was the unquestioned floor general to echo Williams’ message in the final moments of a close game.
“I just love him,” Vasquez said about his coach after the Duke win. “I love him. I will never leave him or anything like that. I will always have his back. And I’m gonna always come back to this place. Always.”
It’s no secret the school’s last ACC Player of the Year (Dixon) and Coach of the Year awards came in 2002, and it will undoubtedly cause Maryland fans to fantasize about the possibilities over the next four weeks, however realistic or unrealistic they might be.
The circumstances are far from identical, but the similarity between the two players’ relationships with Williams is enough to cause anyone to pause. The strong affection between the two is obvious, as seen during their warm embrace on Senior Night.
And while this season probably won’t end with the same national championship witnessed eight years ago, the two of them continue to author a memorable—if not totally unlikely—story with pages yet to be written.
The story may ultimately lack the resolution of the one witnessed in 2002, but the same theme will be prevalent.
Not good enough?
The senior guard and the seasoned coach knew it all along.