At 8:30 p.m. on Sunday, 2 1/2 hours after the NCAA will announce the 68 teams competing in March Madness, the Maryland men’s basketball team will watch its fate revealed for the National Invitational Tournament, broadcast on ESPNU. After falling to Florida State on Thursday in the ACC tournament, the Terrapins almost certainly will receive the consolation prize for the second straight season. The only drama that remains is when and where they will play.
Despite a middling 17-15 record, Maryland hasn’t lost to a team ranked outside the RPI top 100 this season – it’s 4-15 against teams ranked 1-100, with its worst loss to Oregon State (RPI No. 99) – and top 50 wins over Virginia and Providence should be enough. Besides, with an overall RPI of 73, according to CBSSports, and 12 of 32 NIT bids locked up by automatic qualifiers (regular season champions who lost in their conference tournaments), it would take a rash of bid thieves over the next two days to push the Terps away. There are five more possible NIT bid thieves remaining: North Carolina Central, Toledo, Weber State, Stephen F. Austin and Georgia State.
So where are the Terrapins headed? Last season, when they won three games to reach the semifinals at Madison Square Garden in New York City, they were a No. 2 seed, guaranteed two home games provided they kept winning, which they did against Niagara and Denver. Because top-seeded Alabama won, too, Maryland hit the road for the quarterfinals.
With first-round NIT games on Tuesday and Wednesday, Maryland could play at Comcast Center either day if given a top-four seed, because the NCAA women’s tournament doesn’t begin in College Park until March 22. But that, in itself, is a dubious proposition. According to several NIT bracket projections, Maryland is currently teetering on the thin line between hosting a first-round game and having to hit the road on a short turnaround following the selection show.
The NIT Bracket Project, in its most recent update, has Maryland as a No. 5 seed and visiting Georgia, which plays Kentucky in the SEC tournament semifinals on Saturday afternoon. Dratings.com also has the Terps as a No. 5 seed, with West Virginia, LSU, Green Bay and Marquette as possible fourth-seeded opponents.
Patrick Stevens, a familiar friend to all around these parts, teased his NIT projections with Maryland visiting West Virginia in the No. 4-No. 5 matchup. The Mountaineers also happened to have gone 17-15 overall and 9-9 in the Big 12, with three top 50 wins at home over Kansas, Iowa State and Oklahoma, but the Mountaineers also lost to Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., and Purdue (RPI 141) at home.
John Templon, who projects the NIT field for his Web site Big Apple Buckets, predicted Maryland as a No. 5 seed but also gave the Terps a home game by virtue of playing Illinois, which can’t host a game because its arena is undergoing renovations. A future Big Ten conference opponent, the Fighting Illini have beaten four top 50 teams this season and are a respectable 5-6 in road games this season, contrasted to 2-8 for the Terps.
Given how conference tournaments shake out Saturday, we should have a clearer picture of Maryland’s NIT status by Selection Sunday morning.