Maryland’s Vasquez has mouth that roars

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – On Thursday he screamed at a reporter. Not after Maryland’s NCAA tournament game – but during it.

Greivis Vasquez has cursed his own fans, he’s staged mini-news conferences to defend his coach, and then there have been times like Friday, when Vasquez – less than 24 hours before the Terrapins’ biggest game in recent memory – fired an unprovoked dart at the opponent.

“If [Memphis] played in the ACC Conference, they’d have a losing record in the league,” Vasquez said. “They’d probably win all of their games outside the league and have a losing record in the league. The ACC is too tough.”

Yes, you read the quote correctly. Vasquez didn’t insult Morgan State or Alabama State or any of the other slappies in this year’s tournament. He ripped Memphis – the 32-3 Tigers, last year’s national runner-up and a favorite to return to the Final Four.

“Even the President’s bracket has them in there,” Vasquez said. “Every team Memphis has played was intimidated because they went to the Final Four, but we’re not intimidated by anybody.

“If they underestimate us, they’re going to be in trouble.”

Some people like Vasquez. Others hate him. Either way, no player in Kansas City this week has created as much buzz as The Venezuelan Sensation, whose mouth has turned what appeared to be a ho-hum, Saturday afternoon game between Maryland and Memphis into must-watch TV.

The NCAA tournament needs great teams and great upsets and great shots and great moments. But it also needs personalities, and no one in this year’s field holds court or plays to a crowd quite like Vasquez, who smiled Friday when told that Memphis players were mispronouncing his name.

“They’ll know it by tomorrow,” he said.

Few college basketball players display their passion quite like Vasquez, and not many coaches are as feisty and temperamental as Maryland’s Gary Williams. Perhaps that’s why Vasquez chose to sign with the Terrapins three years ago, not long after leaving his native Venezuela to pursue his basketball dream despite knowing little English.

“We’re somewhat alike,” Williams said. “I don’t know if that’s a good thing to say or not.”

Maryland’s players joke about how much time Vasquez and Williams spend around one another. Not long ago Terps forward Dino Gregory walked by Williams’ office and saw Vasquez relaxing in a chair.

“An hour later, I went back for something, and he hadn’t moved,” Gregory said. “He’s always in there. They’re so similar it’s crazy. The stuff they say, the stuff they do, how they act on the court. …You’d think Greivis is Coach Williams’ son.”

Said a reporter who covers the team regularly: “You could accidentally step on their toe or intentionally slap them in the face, and they’d react the same way. They’re defensive. They think everyone is out to get them.”

That’s especially been the case with Williams, who came under fire earlier this season following a string of losses that included a 41-point setback against Duke. Outsiders began criticizing Williams’ recruiting strategy and, as the losses continued to mount, so did questions concerning his job security.

While Williams remained mum on the subject, Vasquez was quick to come to his coach’s defense by praising him in the media and lashing out at anyone who questioned Williams’ capabilities.

Earlier this week, Vasquez told reporters that the situation surrounding Williams helped motivate him and his teammates.

Photo Maryland’s Greivis Vasquez (21) reacts while on the bench during a time out against California.
(AP Photo/Ed Zurga)

“Whoever is trying to attack, we’re going to fight back,” Vasquez said. “It may be fans or whoever. We’ve got a strong family. I think they should do that every game, talk trash about Maryland, and hopefully one of you guys [reporters] loses his job one of these days.”

Vasquez didn’t stop there. During Thursday’s first-round NCAA tournament victory over Cal, Vasquez turned to The Washington Post reporter Eric Prisbell, who was seated on press row. A month earlier Prisbell had written an article that chronicled Williams’ shortcomings on the recruiting trail.

“Don’t look at me!” Vasquez screamed at Prisbell. “Don’t look at me!”

Asked about the incident a day later, Prisbell said: “I have always respected Greivis’ candor and passion for the game. That’s why he’s among the players I’ve most enjoyed covering.”

Vasquez admits there have been times when he’s said and done things he regrets. In the past he’s lashed out at Terrapins fans who have booed during games. On Thursday he put his finger over his lips to shush and taunt the people who had been razzing him for shooting an air-ball. The problem: He accidentally motioned to the wrong fans.

“It was supposed to be to the [Cal] fans,” he said. “I’m not perfect. I’ve made some mistakes. But this is the perfect time for a student athlete to make mistakes and learn from them, so I can teach my kids how to do the right things.

“I need to use my emotion to be able to play hard and play well. That’s how I get going. I’m going to keep doing it until something bad happens to me, but I don’t think it will.”

Vasquez’s teammates said his energy and antics help get the team riled. More than anything, Vasquez uses the word “family” when talking about the Terrapins.

“When Greivis tells you that you can do something, you think you can do anything in the world,” Gregory said. “If he tells you he thinks you can fly, you think you can fly.

“He doesn’t care what anyone says – the media, the fans. He just cares about winning games, playing hard and making sure we’re having a good time.”

That’s been the case so far this week in Kansas City, but the question now is whether the fun will continue. Memphis, Vasquez said, is one of the top teams in America. But so was Wake Forest and so was North Carolina. Those schools were ranked No. 1 at one point this season, and the Terrapins beat them both.

Memphis “needs some competition,” Vasquez said. “It’s going to be a fight. I don’t care who guards me. I’m going to go at him and at the whole team. I’m such a competitor. I don’t care who’s in front of me. I’m going to compete.”

Vasquez smiled when asked to predict a winner.

“I can’t guarantee anyone that we’ll win the game,” he said, “but I can guarantee you this: We’re going to play hard and we’re going to give our best effort.

“We came a long way, and now we’re here, playing one of the best teams in the nation. It’s fun. It doesn’t get any better than this.”

Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Mar 20, 2009