Terps Face Big Test in 17-0 Tigers

By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 12, 2007

Maryland's costly home loss to Miami on Wednesday has set the stage for a critical weekend showdown against the team the Terrapins may least want to encounter.

Over the past two years, Maryland's biggest nemesis has been neither Duke nor North Carolina, but rather Clemson, a usual conference afterthought that has won four consecutive games against the Terrapins with weaker teams than the one that will visit Comcast Center tomorrow.

Unless Maryland can beat the Tigers, the nation's lone unbeaten team, the Terrapins will stand at 0-3 in ACC play and face a steep climb toward reaching the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2004.

"We are going to need this game," Maryland senior D.J. Strawberry said in the locker room after Wednesday's five-point loss to the Hurricanes, who had been the conference's least accomplished team this season.

"Going 0-3 in the ACC to start the season off is going to be tough to come back from. We just have to step up and be men, be college basketball players, do the things we were expected to do when we came in."

Although not a must-win contest for the Terrapins (14-3), tomorrow's game could be a turning point for the season. Maryland can hardly afford to drop its second conference home game, particularly because four of the following five games will be on the road. The Terrapins likely will need at least eight conference victories to position themselves to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.

Clemson played a key role in keeping Maryland out of the tournament each of the past two seasons, beating the Terrapins once last year and three times in 2005. This season, the 17th-ranked Tigers have emerged as an ACC contender, winning their first 17 games, including three in the ACC, to match their fastest start since the 1986-87 season, when Horace Grant was a senior.

"I am surprised by 17-0, but I thought we could be pretty good," said Clemson Coach Oliver Purnell, whose Tigers hope to reach their first NCAA tournament since 1998. "Absolutely I want our players to embrace it and enjoy it, ride with it. But it's important that we stay grounded and continue to do the things we have done or this could end pretty quickly."

Among schools in serious contention for the NCAA tournament, only three have won more road games than Clemson, which has five road victories, including two in the ACC.

The Tigers are a balanced team, with five double-digit scorers, that has used the same starting lineup in every game. Purnell described his squad as "solid" in almost all areas and absent of a great attribute or glaring weakness, aside from perhaps poor free throw shooting.

"They are doing an excellent job playing within themselves," Florida State Coach Leonard Hamilton said. "They have a nice balance of an inside-outside attack. Every once in a while, you get a team that has good chemistry, and they kind of play to their strengths and stay away from their weaknesses. I think Clemson is doing a very good job of this."

Junior guard Cliff Hammonds has done an impressive job handling the ball; he has a 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. But the biggest difference has been the presence of James Mays, who leads the team in rebounding and steals and is positioned at the top of Clemson's pressure defense.

The Tigers are 28-0 with Mays in the lineup over the past two seasons. Clemson was 11-0 last season before Mays was ruled academically ineligible. Without Mays, the Tigers lost 10 of their final 13 games.

Even without the 6-foot-9 Mays, however, the Tigers beat the Terrapins in Clemson on Feb. 14 last season. In Clemson's past four victories over Maryland, the Terrapins have generally played poor perimeter defense and, in some cases, admittedly did not match Clemson effort-wise.

Some of the respect Maryland earned through its nonconference play, which included victories against Michigan State, Illinois and Winthrop, was squandered in Wednesday's loss to Miami. Maryland shot only 22 percent and was dominated on the boards.

As a result, the Terrapins saw their ranking in the RPI drop 15 spots to 38. They can rebound this weekend, but to do so they will have to defeat a school they have not beaten since Feb. 24, 2004, and one that is playing its best basketball in two decades.

"They are the only undefeated team in the country, but I know we can come out and beat them," Maryland senior Ekene Ibekwe said. "We just really need to focus right now, play our game, make some shots, play some defense and rebound."

Staff writer Marc Carig contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company