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Maryland men’s basketball bracket madness (Elite Eight)

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We’re down to eight Terps in the field. Here comes another wave of tough choices.

Len Elmore - University of Maryland Getty Archives

It’s still bracket season. We’ve reached the Elite Eight of our Maryland men’s basketball player tournament.

We started with 64 all-time Terps, trimming the field to 32 early last week and 16 a few days ago. Starting in that round, I added some storytelling to the matchups in an attempt to capture what made Maryland’s greatest players so special. Now in the quarterfinals, I’m looking more at the matchups and the common threads between these stars.

After chatting with Derrick Lewis, Don Markus and Patrick Stevens for this project last week, I was fortunate to talk to Walt Williams and Len Elmore in preparation for this round. They were incredibly gracious with their time and have been great sports throughout the life of this bracket. Shouts to them.

Let’s jump in.

Sweet 16 results

After the first couple rounds of this tournament were characterized by blowouts, voting for this stage was generally closer, albeit still decisive. Len Bias and Juan Dixon mowed down Anthony Cowan Jr. and Melo Trimble, while four others — Joe Smith, John Lucas, Steve Blake and Walt Williams — earned at least 70 percent of the vote in their matchups.

In the closest poll of the whole bracket, Greivis Vasquez rode a strong showing on Twitter (72.7 percent) to victory over Tom McMillen (who won 54.4 percent of the vote on the site). Our social media following certainly skews younger and includes some more casual fans, but that’s still a notable disparity. Some might find the result invalid or simply incorrect, but it’s certainly fun to picture Vasquez dancing his way into the quarterfinals.

Here are the full Sweet 16 bracket results.

WINNER Total Votes Site Twitter LOSER Total Votes Site Twitter
WINNER Total Votes Site Twitter LOSER Total Votes Site Twitter
Len Bias 91.5% 1,155 681 (94.6%) 474 (85.9%) Anthony Cowan Jr. 8.5% 117 39 (5.4%) 78 (14.1%)
Walt Williams 73.8% 892 456 (64.1%) 436 (87.7%) Albert King 26.2% 316 255 (35.9%) 61 (12.3%)
Joe Smith 87.6% 1,050 625 (87.8%) 425 (87.3%) Adrian Branch 12.4% 149 87 (12.2%) 62 (12.7%)
Greivis Vasquez 57.2% 715 325 (45.6%) 390 (72.6%) Tom McMillen 42.8% 535 388 (54.4%) 147 (27.4%)
Juan Dixon 95.3% 1,172 709 (98.6%) 473 (90.8%) Melo Trimble 4.7% 58 10 (1.4%) 48 (9.2%)
Len Elmore 60.9% 727 388 (55.2%) 339 (69.2%) Buck Williams 39.1% 466 315 (44.8%) 151 (30.8%)
John Lucas 80.3% 1,020 614 (87.2%) 406 (71.7%) Keith Booth 19.7% 250 90 (12.8%) 160 (28.3%)
Steve Blake 78.4% 961 500 (75.2%) 461 (82.3%) Lonny Baxter 21.6% 264 165 (24.8%) 99 (17.7%)

The bracket


The matchups

As always, make sure you’re viewing this in a browser so the polls show up.

LEN BIAS (1982-86)
Started: 3 years (19.1 pts, 6.1 rebs, 1.4 asts, 54.4% FG)
Best season: 1985-86 (senior) — 23.2 pts, 7.0 rebs, 54.4% FG
Career totals: 2,149 points (3rd), 745 rebounds (12th), 4,032 minutes (3rd)
Awards: 2x ACC POY (1985, 1986), 2x consensus All-American (first team 1986, second team 1985), 2x All-ACC First Team, 1984 ACC Tournament MVP, 2x All-ACC Tournament (1984, 1986)

WALT WILLIAMS (1988-92)
Started: 3 years (19.2 pts, 4.9 rebs, 4.4 asts, 1.8 stls)
Best season: 1991-92 (senior) — 26.8 pts, 5.6 rebs, 3.6 asts, 2.1 stls)
Career totals: 1,704 points (13th), 410 assists (14th), 175 steals (9th)
Awards: 1992 All-ACC First Team, 1992 consensus All-American Second Team

When I was a senior at Maryland in spring 2019 — which simultaneously feels like last week and a thousand years ago — I took a class about the history of the university. It met once a week and featured lectures on a wide range of topics, from the school’s founding to its chancellors/presidents to its athletics.

The Len Bias story was a lecture all to itself. And Walt Williams was our guest speaker.

Williams and former Terp center Tony Massenburg collaborated on a book titled “Lessons from Lenny,” which released in December 2018. (Massenburg was scheduled to speak to our class as well but couldn’t make it.) The book highlights the players’ memories of Bias and the impact he had, and continues to have, on their lives.

While Williams grew up rooting for Georgetown, he watched the Terps from time to time and was a fan of star scorer Adrian Branch in particular. But he first noticed Bias while attending a Maryland-North Carolina game with his dad, and that was the turning point. Williams became a Terps fan and wanted to follow in the footsteps of his fellow Prince George’s County native.

“I saw Len Bias go up for a jump shot and it just captivated me,” Williams told Testudo Times. “It looked way different than anybody else on the court. It was just a beautiful thing and it stood out to me. And I started to find myself zone in on him from that point.”

During pickup games on the playground, every kid would pretend to be a certain player. They’d call out Julius Erving, George Gervin, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. But on courts in PG County, Len Bias was the first name called. That’s who Williams wanted to be. He wanted to have the same impact on his community as Bias did.

And following Bias’ death in 1986 and the aftermath that cost prominent figures their jobs and cast a black cloud over the entire school, Williams believed he had a chance to help change the perception.

“I wanted the world, I wanted the country to realize my vision of the school and what I thought about the school,” Williams said. “So I felt like I wanted to go there to not only follow in Len Bias’ footsteps, but also to uplift the university and bring it back to the status that I remembered.”

That motivation — to impact and inspire his community — never left him. That’s why, when Williams had the chance to transfer in 1990 after the NCAA imposed postseason and television bans on the program, he stayed. He dazzled on the court, scoring a program-record 26.8 points per game as a senior. And he made an impression with the next wave of Terps, hosting the likes of Joe Smith and Johnny Rhodes on recruiting visits.

Bias, in retrospect, serves as the exclamation point to a Driesell era littered with prized recruits who became college stars and longtime pros. Williams was the one who inspired that next wave the way Bias inspired him. Perhaps no players in Maryland history directly inspired more future Terps. They’ll always be remembered, and connected, in that way.

“A lot of people don’t like to play at home because they look at it as pressure and things of that nature. But for me, I wanted all that,” Williams said. “I wanted my community and the people here to see me grow as a player. I thought I was a badass dude, and I wanted to show people how good I was and how good I could get. I relished that opportunity and I wanted it.

“I just wanted to impact the DMV like I felt Len Bias did.”

Poll

Elite 8: Len Bias vs. Walt Williams

This poll is closed

  • 90%
    Len Bias
    (865 votes)
  • 9%
    Walt Williams
    (96 votes)
961 votes total Vote Now


JOE SMITH (1993-95)
Started: 2 years (20.2 pts, 10.7 rebs, 3.0 blks, 1.5 stls)
Best season: 1994-95 (sophomore) — 20.8 pts, 10.6 rebs, 2.9 blks, 1.5 stls
Career totals: 20.2 ppg (2nd), 10.7 rpg (3rd), 3.0 bpg (1st), 1,290 points (29th), 683 rebounds (17th), 190 blocks (7th)
Awards: 1995 Naismith Award, Rupp Trophy & AP National POY, 1995 consensus All-American First Team, 2x All-ACC First Team, 1995 ACC POY

GREIVIS VASQUEZ (2006-10)
Started: 4 years (16.0 pts, 5.7 asts, 4.8 rebs, 1.4 stls)
Best season: 2009-10 (senior) — 19.6 pts, 6.3 asts, 4.6 rebs, 1.7 stls
Career totals: 2,171 points (2nd), 772 assists (2nd), 5.7 apg (2nd), 191 steals (7th)
Awards: 2010 ACC POY, 2010 Cousy Award, 2010 consensus All-American Second Team, 3x All-ACC (first team 2010, second team 2008-09), 2009 All-ACC Tournament Second Team
Notes: Averaged 18.0 pts, 6.0 asts, 5.2 rebs, 1.5 stls across last three seasons

Most college basketball players are high school stars who have to learn to play within a system and adapt to a smaller role. Every so often, though, a player is paired with another star at the high school or travel levels and doesn’t even get the chance to become a leading actor until it’s on the college stage. That’s what happened with two of Maryland’s all-time greats.

Joe Smith was part of a highly anticipated 1993 recruiting class, but he wasn’t the headliner. That distinction went to Keith Booth, a 6’6 power forward from Baltimore. Smith played AAU ball with Allen Iverson in Virginia and got overshadowed on the national level (even though Iverson was a year behind him). But it became clear in his very first game at Maryland that Smith was special in his own right.

Smith’s college debut came against No. 15 Georgetown at the old Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland. He scored 26 points and grabbed 10 rebounds as the Terps came back from down 14 in the second half and knocked off the Hoyas 84-83 in overtime. For Maryland, it was a turning point after a 12-16 season and years of failing to recover from the aftermath of Bias’ death. And for Smith, it was off and running.

“Him taking on Othella Harrington [who had averaged 17 and 9 the season before] kind of opened everybody’s eyes as to what Maryland had on its hands,” said Patrick Stevens, who’s covered the Terps and college sports for several publications, most recently The Athletic.

Smith kept his foot on the gas all season, averaging 19.4 points, 10.7 boards and 3.1 blocks. He was First Team All-ACC and the league’s Rookie of the Year.

“I remember the first guy who really sort of got a handle on [him] was an even bigger unknown freshman named Tim Duncan,” longtime Baltimore Sun Terps beat writer Don Markus said. “Joe had 13 and 10 against Duncan, which was like shutting him down.”

As a sophomore, Smith was even more dominant, averaging 20.8 points, 10.6 boards and 2.9 blocks while shooting 57.8 percent from the floor. He won ACC Player of the Year and captured several National Player of the Year honors, including the Naismith Award. He led Maryland to the Sweet 16 before turning pro. Two years after being overshadowed as a prospect, he was the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft. There was nothing left to prove as a college player.

Greivis Vasquez, meanwhile, wasn’t on Gary Williams’ radar until he noticed him while recruiting his Montrose Christian Academy teammate, Kevin Durant. Vasquez became a four-star prospect in his own right, but the Venezuela native was far from a household name. He started his career as a sixth man while fellow freshman Eric Hayes ran the point.

His breakout performance came in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, with the Terps visiting Illinois and both teams undefeated. Maryland led early and Illinois made a charge, but Vasquez scored 15 of his 17 points in the second half to lift his team to victory. That game was the first time Vasquez’s flashy playing style and flamboyant celebrations took center stage, and it was far from the last.

After finishing his rookie season with 22 starts, averaging 9.8 points and a team-high 4.6 assists per game, Vasquez became a lead guard and All-ACC selection his sophomore and junior seasons. Then came his senior year, when his game reached another level and he won ACC Player of the Year as Maryland finished tied for first in the conference. It seemed like he’d morphed into an extension of Williams, bringing his coach’s fire and passion to the court and adding his own flair to the mix.

Vasquez is second in Maryland history in points and assists. Smith would surely hold a massive lead in points, rebounds and blocks had he needed to stay four years. Vasquez is Maryland’s most recent Conference Player of the Year; Smith is its only National Player of the Year.

Sure, Iverson and Durant are Hall of Famers. But Smith and Vasquez showed they could play a little, too.

Poll

Elite 8: Joe Smith vs. Greivis Vasquez

This poll is closed

  • 67%
    Joe Smith
    (655 votes)
  • 32%
    Greivis Vasquez
    (316 votes)
971 votes total Vote Now

JUAN DIXON (1998-2002)
Started: 3 years (18.9 pts, 4.8 rebs, 3.0 asts, 2.6 stls)
Best season: 2001-02 (senior) — 20.4 pts, 4.6 rebs, 2.9 asts, 2.6 s
Career totals: 2,269 points (1st), 141 games (T-1st), 333 steals (2nd), 2.4 spg (2nd), 371 assists (15th)
Awards: 2002 NCAA Tournament MOP, 2002 ACC POY, 2002 consensus All-American First Team, 3x All-ACC First Team (2000-02), 3x ACC All-Defense (2000-02), 2x NCAA Tournament All-Region (2001, 2002)

LEN ELMORE (1971-74)
Started: 3 years (11.8 pts, 12.2 rebs, 1.4 asts)
Best season: 1973-74 (senior) — 14.6 pts, 14.7 rebs, 1.7 asts, 52.5% FG
Career totals: 1,053 rebounds (1st), 12.2 rpg (1st), 1,017 points (54th)
Awards: 3x All-ACC (first team 1974, second team 1972-73), 1974 consensus All-American second team, 2x All-ACC Tournament Second Team (1972, 1974)
Notes: Still holds Maryland single-game record with 26 rebounds at Wake Forest (1974)

There’s an intangible fraternity between players at top college programs. Across different teams and even different eras, there’s a common bond that brought these players together. Maryland basketball stars from decades apart share a mutual admiration. The younger players respect the program’s history, and the older generation roots for those who’ve followed them.

Even while he played in the NBA and called pro and college basketball as a TV analyst, Elmore kept tabs on the Terps as a fan (and a booster). He was in the Georgia Dome on April 1, 2002, where he and his family watched Maryland win its first-ever NCAA championship.

“To see Maryland win and to kind of vindicate the program all those years,” Elmore said. “It was just a great thing to see.”

He’ll admit the moment was bittersweet, though.

Twenty-eight years earlier, Elmore’s Terps played one of college basketball’s all-time classics against North Carolina State in the ACC tournament championship game. The Wolfpack won a triple-overtime thriller, clinching the league’s automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament. The problem for Maryland was that there were no at-large bids then, so the Terps — who finished the year ranked fourth in the AP Poll — didn’t even get a shot at playing for the title (which NC State eventually won).

That game was a driving force in the NCAA expanding its tournament field and allowing more than one bid per conference. But for Elmore and fellow star big man Tom McMillen, that heartbreaker was the end of the road. They paired to lead Maryland to the NIT championship as sophomores (their rookie seasons) in 1972 and the regional finals in 1973, but the 1974 team is still widely considered the best college team to not participate in the NCAA Tournament.

Elmore’s career comes with more defining what-ifs than any other player remaining in this bracket. He was a premier defender and rim protector before blocked shots were a recorded statistic — “so many good blocks were called goaltending because the officials didn’t know how to call them,” he said. He’s the school’s all-time leading rebounder despite only being allowed to play three seasons. Maybe his scoring numbers would look more dominant had he not shared a front line with McMillen. And maybe he’d cap his career as a national champion, if he was only given the chance.

In 2002, the NCAA Tournament featured 65 teams. Under old rules, Maryland wouldn’t have been allowed to participate because it lost in the ACC semifinals. But with the opportunity presented to him, Juan Dixon still had to deliver. And he did.

Dixon had already overachieved in so many ways. He had already developed from an undersized, unheralded prospect to an All-ACC guard by his redshirt sophomore season. He had already led Maryland to its first-ever Final Four in 2001. He had already won ACC Player of the Year as a senior. He had already become the program’s all-time scoring leader, passing Bias for the top spot in the second round of the dance.

But Dixon always had a habit of rising to the biggest moments. And he did just that in Atlanta. The redshirt senior poured in 33 points on 10-of-18 shooting in the semifinals against Kansas. He then knocked down 6-of-9 shots and notched 18 points in the title game against Indiana, offsetting seven turnovers with five steals as he closed his college career with a title game victory.

College championships have a way of validating entire programs. They can feel like a culmination of years or decades of excellence. The 2002 team stood on the proverbial shoulders of those who came before. Lefty Driesell’s teams with Elmore and McMillen laid the foundation, and the Terps spent decades building on it. Dixon reached the peak, and as he threw the ball in the air in celebration, the entire Maryland family celebrated along with him.

The kids had finally done it.

Poll

Elite 8: Juan Dixon vs. Len Elmore

This poll is closed

  • 92%
    Juan Dixon
    (899 votes)
  • 7%
    Len Elmore
    (75 votes)
974 votes total Vote Now

JOHN LUCAS (1972-76)
Started: 4 years (18.3 pts, 4.7 asts, 3.4 rebs, 52.5% FG)
Best season: 1973-74 (sophomore) — 20.1 pts, 5.7 asts, 2.9 rebs
Career totals: 2,015 points (6th), 18.3 ppg (4th), 514 assists (6th), 862 field goals (T-1st)
Awards: 2x consensus All-American First Team (1975, 1976), 3x All-ACC first team (1974-76), 3x All-ACC Tournament (first team 1973-74, second team 1975), NCAA Tournament All-Region (1975)

STEVE BLAKE (1999-2003)
Started: 4 years (8.3 pts, 7.0 asts, 3.4 rebs, 1.7 stls)
Best season: 2002-03 (senior) — 11.6 pts, 7.1 asts, 3.7 rebs, 1.6 stls
Career totals: 972 assists (1st), 7.0 apg (1st), 234 steals (4th), 1,139 points (41st), 136 starts (1st)
Awards: 2x All-ACC (first team 2003, third team 2002), All-ACC Tournament Second Team (2002), ACC All-Freshman (2000)

Basketball at all levels has undergone several evolutions over the past 50 years. The pace has sped up, slowed down and sped up again. Three-pointers didn’t exist, but now they’re essential. Rule changes have reduced the game’s physicality.

Amid all this evolution, the duties of a point guard have largely remained the same. There have always been different ways to play the position, and the role is no longer reserved for exclusively shorter players, but the checklist remains the same.

“I always said, even as an analyst, that a classic point guard is somebody who is able to control the tempo on offense — push the ball up the floor, make or miss — explore the defense, make plays. And if you don’t have numbers in your favor, to execute the offense, make sure everybody’s in their sets and they move the ball and get the best possible shot,” Elmore said. “And on the defensive end, it’s the point of the ball. They have to pressure the ball, make it difficult for for the other guy to do exactly what I said.”

John Lucas and Steve Blake both played point guard at Maryland, but they did it in dramatically different ways.

Lucas was a scoring threat from the second he walked onto campus. He made nine consecutive field goals in his Terps debut. Even while deferring to veteran big men Len Elmore and Tom McMillen, Lucas averaged 14.2 points as a freshman and 20.1 as a sophomore. He was adept at getting out in transition and turning an Elmore outlet into an easy layup. Lucas’ scoring prowess allowed him to draw defenders and dish to open shooters or lob to the bigs who could play above the rim (even if they weren’t allowed to dunk).

Even when Lefty Driesell shifted more facilitating duties toward Brad Davis in 1974-75, Lucas remained a weapon with the ball in his hands. He averaged 19.5 and 19.9 points his last two seasons, earning a pair of First Team All-American selections before going No. 1 in the NBA Draft. He left as Maryland’s all-time leader with 2,015 points and 514 assists.

Blake never turned into that kind of scorer — he never needed to. He was the quintessential setup man, averaging nearly as many assists as points for most of his career. Blake joined the Terps in 1999, sliding right into a starting lineup highlighted by Dixon, Lonny Baxter and Terence Morris. Those three combined to average 49.4 points per game; Blake was content to average 6.2 assists alongside his 7.0 points. As a sophomore, he finished with exactly 248 points and 248 dimes (6.9 and 6.9 per game). He had 40 assists and just 37 points in the 2002 NCAA Tournament.

Even without the gaudy point totals, Blake made his mark. He obviously made it in the passing game with his school-record 972 assists. He made it on the defensive end with his 234 steals. He made it with solid three-point shooting (38.1 percent for his career). And he made it with his wits, knowing which moments were just right to take matters into his own hands.

Lucas was the focal point of every opponent’s game plan as an upperclassman (and perhaps even earlier). Blake never intimidated you with his numbers; he just found a way to grind and keep his team in the game, and could still bury you with a clutch shot if you weren’t careful. From the same position, these two took divergent paths into the Maryland record books.

But only one can advance.

Poll

Elite 8: John Lucas vs. Steve Blake

This poll is closed

  • 72%
    John Lucas
    (710 votes)
  • 27%
    Steve Blake
    (265 votes)
975 votes total Vote Now