Boo hoo. Maryland missed the NCAA tournament twice in the last ten years. All the chicken littles who take that as evidence the Terrapins are no longer an elite program need to take a look at this ESPN ranking of top 10 programs of the last decade.
Hmm, that is Maryland at number 9, even with those two NIT seasons. Just think what Maryland may have done if the last two senior classes were not some of the most underachieving players in the program's history. I guess I could argue they deserve a spot over some of the programs above them but somewhere between 7-9th place is right.
They also ranked the 2002 National Champion team as the eight best team of that period. Now that I take exception to. In the list they have two of the most overrated teams of the decade at number 1 and number 4. Don't even get me started on Florida, who is without a doubt in my mind one of the weakest champions in recent memory, even with a repeat. The 2007 Gators played one of the weakest tournament fields in recent times and the easiest set of opponents for a one seed in the tournament. They didn't play the highest seed possible in an opponent until facing fellow one seed Ohio State in the final. They would barely make my top 10 and certainly wouldn't be number one. Most of the recent champions would be far too powerful and deep for this Florida team. They benefited greatly from a very down period in college basketball. Have there been any great teams in college basketball the last two seasons? I would say no. I doubt Florida will win another national title in the next decade, whether Billy Donovan stays there or not.
The 2004 Connecticut team was also vastly overrated. The stars from this team Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon were both freshmen on the team that lost to the 2002 Maryland team in the regional finals two seasons before. This team also had NBA lottery pick Caron Butler as its dominant player.
The 2002 Maryland team had three senior starters, a three year starter in junior point guard Steve Blake and NBA lottery pick Chris Wilcox. That makes them the most experienced team out of the ten that ESPN ranked. Not only that but this team also had two subsequent All-ACC players coming off the bench in Drew Nicholas and Ryan Randle. Juan Dixon's scoring average for the 2002 tournament, his scoring total and career NCAA tournament totals are better than any player on any of the other top 10 teams on the ESPN list.
I doubt the 2002 Maryland team will ever get their due credit. The North Carolina, Connecticut and Florida teams all got more attention but were not as deep or experienced. It is telling that one of the most talented teams in recent memory, the 2002 Kansas team, isn't even on this list. That team had Kirk Heinrich, Drew Gooden, Nick Collison, Wayne Simien, Aaron Miles and Keith Langford on it. That group has three first team All-Americans (Gooden 2002, Collison 2003 and Simien 2005) and two NABC Player of the Year winners (Gooden 2002 and Collison 2003). In 2002 Kansas had a record of 33-4 and a perfect 16-0 in the Big 12. They destroyed a very good Oregon team in the regional finals 104-86 before losing to Maryland in the Final Four. Kansas played 12 ranked teams that season and finished with a 9-3 record in those games. That Kansas team is one of the greatest teams to never win a national title.
The 2002 Maryland team is used to being unappreciated and underestimated. As recruits Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter were not heralded, even by Maryland fans. They were wrote off during the 2001 season after the heartbreaking loss to Duke at Cole Field House. They were not the among the favorites to win the national title the following year despite returning most of their starters. Even at the beginning of the tournament with a one seed and top 5 ranking conventional wisdom had other teams like Kansas or Duke winning the national title. Perhaps the lackluster title game against Indiana has served to color fans opinions of this Terrapin team. If the games against Kansas or Connecticut were the final they would go down as some of the great championship games in recent memory. Such is the fate of this unsung group.
A form of recency effect, where there is a disproportionate reliance on the salience of events, is always present in sports where everyone is judged by the last accomplishment. The last thing many casual watchers of college basketball saw was the agility of Florida's Corey Brewer and the inside power of Al Horford and Joakim Noah. This recency effect and that they were repeat champions leads people to conclude that this is one of the great teams in the history of college basketball. It also lead to silly assertions that Florida was superior to the last repeat champions, the Duke teams of 1991-1992. I wouldn't fault anyone forgetting that Duke demolished the fabled "Fab Five" of Michigan by 20 points in the championship game in 1992. Does anyone really believe that Florida's team is superior in talent to Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jalen Rose, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson? I'd say that was laughable but some would attempt the argument. Many Maryland fans hate all things blue but Bobby Hurley and Christian Laettner were two of the greatest college basketball players of all time and certainly two of the greatest NCAA tournament players in modern history of college basketball. It is ridiculous to argue otherwise.
Would any current NCAA basketball players be superior athletes to David Thompson, Len Bias or Michael Jordan? Does it matter that both played 20 or even 30 years ago? Many fans probably have never even seen video of those players in college but will feel with certainty that Sean May, Emeka Okafor or Al Horford are great players. Perhaps there is even some credibility to the notion that May and Okafor were all time great players.
Here is a quick thought exercise: of the following list of players rank them by most points scored in the championship run through the NCAA tournament.
Where would most people have ranked Juan Dixon? Probably near the bottom. Here is where they would really rank:
1. Juan Dixon 155 points 25.8ppg
2. Jason Williams 154 points 25.7ppg
3. Richard Hamilton 145 points 24.2ppg
4. Sean May 134 points 22.3ppg
5. Ben Gordon 127 points 21.2ppg
6. Carmelo Anthony 121 points 20.2ppg
7. Joakim Noah 97 points 16.2ppg
Perception is often not the truth and the 2002 Maryland Terrapins were a much greater team than they will ever be given credit for being.